Dueling Disney: Nighttime Spectaculars

Written by Keith Gluck. Posted in Disney Parks, Disneyland Resort, Dueling Disney, Keith Gluck, Walt Disney World

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Published on August 28, 2013 at 3:00 am with 38 Comments

One of the most iconic images that one can think of when referring to Disney is a shot of Cinderella Castle, with fireworks exploding in the night sky above it. Of course, firework shows have long been a tradition for Disney Parks. But not only are the crowds entertained by the elaborate firework displays, but a whole host of other nighttime spectaculars. In this coast to coast Disney duel, Keith and Jeff light the match for their own fireworks and battle over who has the best: Disneyland or Walt Disney World!

(As usual, Keith is representing Disneyland, while Jeff represents Walt Disney World)

Topic 16: Nighttime Spectaculars

Keith: Jeff. Do you realize that the photo of us recreating that scene from Titanic from our last Dueling Disney got more likes on my Facebook page than any other photo I’ve ever posted?

Jeff: It did! In fact, I do believe I mentioned the fact that this photo wins the Internet forever. We should just call Al Gore and tell him to close up shop for the rest of eternity. Thanks for everything, Internet, but you’ve been great. We’ve hit the apex!

Keith: I’m sayin’! So anyway, what do you say this time we finally pit our Home Resorts’ Fantasmics against one another?

Jeff: That’s not fair, Keith. We need to really include all the other stuff going on at night as well.

Keith: By George (pun intended), you’re right! Instead of just Fantasmic (I am purposely withholding the exclamation point as it drives me crazy grammatically), let’s throw in a few other nighttime spectaculars as well. No parades though. If we duel over those, they can get their own installment later.

Jeff: For every exclamation point you leave out, I’ll add an extra few to the end of my sentences!!!!! Thanks for mentioning no parades right off the bat. Otherwise, we would have gotten roasted in the comments for not talking about them! So, let’s jump into it and talk about some nighttime spectaculars, since we already have wasted 200 words, and as we know, every word counts!

Keith: Remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine and her boyfriend (Jake Jarmel) broke up over his lack of exclamation point usage?

Since we often like to start off with some history, I would like to tell the good folks reading this column a little bit about Fantasmic’s ancestor… Dancing Waters!

Dancing Waters debuted in its own amphitheater at the Disneyland Hotel in May of 1970. The twenty-minute miniature nighttime spectacular was free, and ran three times a night. The program consisted of 1,800 water jets dancing to music (from over 150 speakers) and changing color (from nearly 90 lamps). The water reached heights of 150 feet, thanks to 19 different motors. Only nine people in the entire country were trained to orchestrate the show.

The music of Dancing Waters ranged from Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” to Latin American music. The show changed many times over the years, so the musical selections were constantly being updated. It’s fun to see that both World of Color and Fantasmic have roots in this vintage performance. Besides the wide array of colored lamps present, part of the show entailed projecting shapes and images onto an 18-foot waterfall.

Sadly, the waters ceased to dance in 1992. That is, until, Fantasy Waters debuted that same year! Fantasy Waters included similar elements to its predecessor, but added music from Disneyland attractions (Captain EO, anyone?), as well as a brilliant light panel with colorized grids that moved with the music. There was even a Holiday version every Christmas. After a nice 15-year run, Fantasy Waters closed for good in 2007, thus ending the 37-year tradition of nighttime shows at the Disneyland Hotel.


Jeff: Since we can’t talk about parades, I’m automatically missing out on telling you about the Electrical Light Parade, which would take the Dancing Waters show and show it who the boss is (spoiler: it’s actually Tony Danza, but that’s a column for another time). So, instead, I’ll start with the Magic Kingdom, and their fireworks show that has been running for close to ten years now.

Wishes: A Magical Gathering Of Disney Dreams debuted October 8th, 2003. Developed to replace the 32 year old Fantasy in the Sky, which debuted when the Park opened, Wishes was created be a grander spectacle. The show is “hosted” by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy, and the entire show is aptly named because it deals with the good, and bad, wishes of various Disney characters.

Various lighting is displayed on the castle itself, while digital projections appear at some points, adding to the show. Tinkerbell even flies from the castle’s tallest spire at one point!

Despite being close to ten years old, Wishes still remains one of my favorite night time shows from all of the Disney Parks. They even switch it out on holidays, with HalloWishes for Halloween and Holiday Wishes for the holiday season. Overall, though, this firework spectacular really is just that: spectacular. Anyone who sees it walks away in awe of it.

Keith: I do like Wishes. But I’m about to one-up you!

Writing about Dancing/Fantasy Waters makes me realize how much I miss it. Not only was it Fantasmic before there was a Fantasmic, and World of Color before there was a World of Color, but it was also kind of a mini “Remember… Dreams Come True.”

In May of 2005, the fireworks spectacular “Remember… Dreams Come True” debuted in Disneyland to celebrate the park’s 50th anniversary. And I gotta tell ya, this is the best fireworks show I’ve ever seen. EVER. The show incorporates pyrotechnics, projection, special lighting and sound technologies, and even uses the Matterhorn as a “prop” during the performance. Narrated by Julie Andrews, the show is a celebration of five decades of shows and attractions at Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom. A little over four minutes into the show, an excerpt of Walt giving his Opening Day speech is played, and the goosebumps commence. Soon after, the Disneyland Railroad announcement is heard, which begins the audio grand circle tour of the park. Music from many beloved attractions are played throughout the show, both past and current. One of the cooler moments comes during the Pirates of the Caribbean sequence, when the Matterhorn is used to exchange “cannon fire” with the lands below.

The show can still be seen periodically, and according to Disneyland’s official website, “This nighttime celebration has become the biggest in Disney history.”


Jeff: Speaking of big nighttime Disney productions, let’s talk about IllumiNations next. The show was produced by longtime Disney entertainment executive Ron Logan. Ron commissioned Don Dorsey to create the show.

Performing nightly at EPCOT, IllumiNations debuted in 1999 as part of the millennium celebration for Walt Disney world. It was so overwhelmingly popular that they dropped the “2000” from the original name and kept the show on.

The show itself is a 12 minute spectacle, showcasing the various countries from all over the World Showcase in EPCOT. Combining fireworks, pyrotechnics, a gigantic video globe, and beautiful music, the show is truly a marvel to behold.

Speaking of the music, it was recorded with a 71-piece philharmonic orchestra and a 30-voice chorus. Gavin Greenaway composed the orchestration. It was so good that ABC actually used it in their 25 Hour Event for the Year 2000.

For a bit of Five Legged Goat, footage of the now-defunct Tapestry of Nations parade can be seen on the globe towards the end of the show prior to the We Go On number.

The show also changes a bit for the holidays, with special tags for the Fourth of July, Christmas, and more being added to the end. During EPCOT’s 30th Anniversary, an extra four minutes were added to celebration the Park’s history.

The show won in 2009 and 2012 for Best Outdoor Night Production Show by Gold Ticket Awards. Now tell me, Keith, have any of YOUR night time shows won any awards?

Keith: Why, yes! Thank you for reminding me. “Remember… Dreams Come True” won the 2005 THEA award (Themed Entertainment Association) for Outstanding Achievement: Best Show. In case you didn’t know, the THEA awards are international, which pretty much covers planet earth (you stay classy). It’s slightly more prestigious than the… “Gold Ticket” Award? Frankly, that award sounds made up, Charlie Bucket.

Oh, and I will discuss another THEA award-winning show later in the column! But first…

Disneyland had no new attraction set to open in the summer of 1992, so Senior Show Director Barnette Ricci was tasked with creating a very special show that could be used to bring the crowds. She felt that the Rivers of America was a unique venue, so Ricci and her team began researching water-related effects. They ended up finding an effect in France that utilized “water screens.” Once they tested that technology by projecting animation on it, they knew they had found their effect. It took months to find the right Disney film footage to use that would not only fit in with the show’s storyline, but look good on the water as well.

They named the show “Imagination.” Nobody seemed to like that name, however, so the show was ultimately renamed “Fantasmic.”

The official Disneyland website lists the show as utilizing: high-resolution digital film sequences, music, pyrotechnics, fiber optics, lasers, video projected on water and plenty of special effects. What it doesn’t list is, just how dramatically better its version is over the one at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s true that DHS has its own amphitheater specifically for Fantasmic. However just like most larger things in Walt Disney World, it seems to take away from the intimacy of the show. I haven’t seen the East Coast Fantasmic in years, since my home park hosts the superior version. But the last time I saw it, the audience did “the wave” while waiting for the show to begin. Bad form, Florida.

In our last installment of Dueling Disney we talked about watercraft, and it is that very topic where the DHS version falters the most. The Sailing Ship Columbia portraying Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship is a huge point for Disneyland. Not to mention the fact that we use the Mark Twain for our finale, whereas you guys have thrown together what may be the most generic-looking water vessel I have ever seen.

In fact, I think you owe all of our readers an apology, Heimbuch.

Jeff: You want an apology?

Fine, let’s do this.

I won’t lie: I don’t LOVE Fantasmic at Walt Disney World. I dislike how everyone is crowded in like sardines, and how the story itself is kind of lackluster.

However, you cannot deny the sheer spectacle of the entire thing. It’s an engineering feat to be able to pull off a show like this, night after night, and still wow the crowds. And wow the crowds it does! Fantasmic consistently has people flocking to its shores, sometimes waiting up to 3 hours to get a good seat. It truly is a nighttime spectacular, in every sense of the word.

Keith: You’re right. It truly is a spectacle to behold! At Disneyland.

Let’s get back to those THEA award-winning nighttime spectaculars, shall we? On June 11, 2010, World of Color debuted in Paradise Bay at Disney California Adventure. Disney hosted a special “blue carpet” premiere the night before, and many celebrities were in attendance, like Geena Davis, Vanessa Hudgens, John Stamos (I mentioned him for you, Jeff) Jason Segel, and more.

The show was a technical marvel upon its debut, featuring: seven differently designed nozzles on over 1,200 fountains, 600 grid nozzles, nearly 200 swiveling nozzles, including “water whip” nozzles giving the water a dancing effect (dancing waters–that sounds familiar), 12 swiveling cannons shooting flames 60 feet high, and a back mist screen 380 by 50 feet thanks to some of the largest fan nozzles in the world, developed specifically for Disney.

When World of Color first premiered, it brought the much-needed “kiss goodnight” to California Adventure. Steve Davison, show director and a Walt Disney Imagineering vice president of parades and spectaculars, commented, “It brings what Disney is all about – a big, over-the-top spectacle.” He also issued a bit of advice for folks who may want to stay dry during the performance, “You are always going to get the spray in the front row. It’s going to be the fun zone.”

On November 16, 2010, World of Color took home the prestigious THEA award. Sayre Wiseman, director of show production of Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, said in a statement, “We are thrilled to be recognized by our peers in the themed entertainment industry with the Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement – Nighttime Spectacular.” The show was cleverly designed so that it could be updated and extended seamlessly, which constantly keeps performances fresh for audiences.

Now Jeff, Ima let you finish, but DISNEYLAND RESORT HAS THE GREATEST NIGHTTIME SPECTACULARS OF ALL TIME. In all seriousness, I will happily admit that IllumiNations has one of the most gorgeous soundtracks of any Disney production in the history of the parks. I adore it. But, sorry bud. This should be another easy victory for Disney West!

Jeff: I’m pretty sure I’ll take Jason Segel over John Stamos any day. I mean, have you seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall!? One of the best movies, ever!

Anyway, as much as I like everything you guys have to offer, I’m still going to stick it out over here. I noticed you didn’t mention your current fireworks at Disneyland (because Magical is terrible, and Wishes can take it any day of the week). But that’s OK. We’ve both got a selective memory when it comes to what we mentioned.

If only I could have mentioned the Electrical Water Pageant…

What say you, folks? Does Keith take home the gold for Disneyland Resort’s night time spectacles? Or does Walt Disney World trump it? Let us know in the comments!

Dueling Disney
 is written by Jeff Heimbuch & Keith Gluck

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected]

You can follow us on Twitter: @DisneyProject and @JeffHeimbuch

About Keith Gluck

Keith Gluck writes for and volunteers at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. He also runs a Disney blog called thedisneyproject.com, and travels to Disney Parks as often as he can. A fan of many facets of The Disney Company, Keith's main interest is the life and legacy of Walt Disney. For questions/comments, or to request a certain topic be covered, please send an email to: [email protected] Twitter: @DisneyProject Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Disney-Project/194569877288847

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  • DG2

    Well, I have to give this one to Disneyland. I saw the 50th anniversary fireworks show several times and it is bar none the most outrageous fireworks show ever produced in the world. The close proximity of the Sleeping Beauty castle creates a ” cozy warm” environment and is overall the winner

  • redrocker

    you forget that Tink at WDW just goes one direction in a slide for life…while Disneyland’s Tink goes back and forth and up and down and dances with the music and fireworks!!!!

  • OprylandUSA

    These articles are so frustrating!

    If Disneyland can trot out the old Dancing Waters, can Walt Disney World use Laserphonic Fantasy? The original Illuminations? Illuminations 25? Fantasy in the Sky? The Magic, Memories, & You? Summer Nightastic? And… something called SORCERY IN THE SKY?

    What about Celebrate the Magic? Rockin’ July 4th Celebration? ROE New Years Eve?

    (oh, and you left out a little ditty called LuminAria at Disney’s California Adventure… a real showstopper)

    • FerretAfros

      I agree. While DL has some great history, it seems that the historical aspects often overshadow the current options. WDW also has its own history, yet it’s too often brushed aside as though it is irrelevant to the conversation (which it may be, but if one side gets to play the ‘history’ card, both should).

      Perhaps a higher word count would allow for a more in-depth discussion, rather than skimming over many of the important aspects

    • red014

      It’s a Disneyland-centric blog. Once you take that into account, this site’s articles are a bit more tolerable.

  • FerretAfros

    I agree that there should have been more discussion of the Electrical Water Pageant. If there’s discussion of the defunct Dancing Waters show in a back corner of the DLH, it only makes sense to talk about WDW’s original nighttime ‘spectacular’ (using the word loosely) that continues to run nightly, and was the forerunner to the much-loved Main Street Electrical Parade at both resorts.

    I also noticed that, despite talking about how great Remember is, there was no mention of how the show’s been neutered through the years. Yes, you can still catch it occasionally, but the shooting gallery segment is long gone, and there’s been a significant reduction in the number of fireworks used throughout the rest of it. When it was running at 100%, it was absolutely incredible; in its current state, it’s just a little underwhelming

  • whamo

    I’m just glad summer is about over. That’s when I start going back to the park. That’s when the crowds thin out. That’s when the blackout ends.

  • julesofhearts

    I hesitate to say this, because I know many will disagree, but my husband and I just saw IllumiNations on June 30, 2013 and were very underwhelmed. It is by far the most disappointing night time spectacular I have ever seen at Disney. The globe was so small (or at least looked small due to distance) that you could barely see what was projected on it, especially once those flames started up right next to it. The “dancing waters” in the show were pathetic. They looked like an afterthought and did not enhance the show at all. The amount of fireworks set off was minimal compared to every other Disney display (especially the half-hour 4th of July spectacular we viewed the next night at MK). The one feature we truly enjoyed was the incorporation of the World Showcase pavillions and how they lit up. I will give you that the soundtrack is spectacular. Now Fantasmic at Disneyland, that is truly a night time Spectacular!

    • fnord

      My thoughts exactly, Illuminations isn’t spectacular enough for that sized lagoon.
      You need binoculars! You can pipe in music, but we need visuals people!
      My favorite nighttime spectacular ever is the combo of MSEP at Disneyland and Disneyland fireworks.
      It’s intimate and in your face. I never got tired of it, any more than Peter Pan Flight!
      Fantasmic and World of Color are also very up close, grand yet intimate, and with Illuminations being my
      least favorite nighttime spectacular ever, Disneyland totally wins.
      I only catch shows or parades at Disney parks if they have huge buzz, coming from Texas,
      I concentrate on the rides and architectural ambience of the parks. That’s how I roll!

    • Jim1013

      I was also completely underwhelmed by Illuminations. I agree with all your thoughts.

  • Illusion0fLife

    When I saw the headline of this week’s edition, I was tempted to jump straight down to the comment section and declare that this isn’t even an argument. Despite having half as many parks, Disneyland EASILY tops Walt Disney World in the Nighttime Spectaculars category every single time.

    We’ve already discussed how DHS’ Fantasmic! is moderately sad and pathetic when compared the breathtaking spectacle that is Disneyland’s version (still my favorite nighttime spectacular of all time), Remember… is easily the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen, and while Magical is a poor follow up to Remember…, I think it’s still a pretty good show in its own right (and better than Wishes, for that matter. I mean, come on, we have an actual flying Dumbo! That makes up for any melodramatic Cinderella meltdowns).

    And then, of course, there’s World of Color, which I feel still has a few wrinkles that need ironing out (the Brave segment and the Up segment feel somewhat unsubstantial, and the Pirates segment doesn’t really mesh with its animated surroundings), but despite these minor issues, it’s an amazing show. It makes possibly the strongest first impression of any of the nighttime spectaculars.

    I’ll give you guys IllumiNations, which is an excellent show, but it can hardly compete with the multitude of excellent options available at Disneyland. Maybe if they can ever find a way to give Animal Kingdom a good night kiss we can have this coversation again.

  • ni_teach

    Another reason to vote for the Disneyland Resort is that you can see all three shows: Fantasmic, Castle Fireworks, and World of Color all in the same night. You can not do more than one show each night at WDW.

    • Disney Analyst

      I want to mention there were several nights where I managed to do Illuminations and Wishes in the same evening :)

  • Big D

    This might be one where you prefer the first version of a show you saw, so people who saw Fantasmic at WDW first prefer that and vice versa. I personally much prefer the DL version, although I do like that WDW has it’s own amphitheater to view the show in rather then shutting down Frontierland and New Orleans Square for the last 6 hours of the day. Absolutely nothing compares to Fantasmic. Even though it is now 21 years old, Disney has never even come close with any of their other shows to anything this good. I do like Illuminations for what it is, and I like it better than World of Color, but neither one of them are in the same ballpark as Fantasmic. As for the fireworks, Remember was definitely the best I’ve ever seen, but I’ll still give that to WDW just because I love watching them from the comfort of the California Grill on top of the Contemporary Hotel in a nice restaurant with really good (although expensive) food rather then being in the massive crowds on Main St. So I guess all told, I prefer the WDW Illuminations over DCA World of Color, WDW Fireworks over DL Fireworks, and DL Fantasmic over WDW Fantasmic. However, since Fantasmic is SO much better then anything else, I give the win to Disneyland.

  • lionheartkc

    Disneyland… and it’s not even close. This is from someone who goes to Disney World more frequently, too.

    Fantasmic at Disneyland is FAR better than it’s Disney World cousin, World of Color is amazing and beautiful, and, while every fireworks display at Disneyland isn’t amazing, the special shows they do (50th anniversary, Halloween Screams, etc) blow away anything I’ve ever seen in Florida.

    All Disney World has going for it is Illuminations and, honestly, it’s gotten old. Yea, they’ve upgraded the globe and gotten a little preachier with the story, but those aren’t the changes it needs. It used to be far more fun, with the various countries doing a lot more as part of the show. Now that they have the projection technologies used on the castle and the water show tech of World of Color, they could really reinvent Illuminations as something spectacular for a new generation. I hope they do, sometime, but I’m sure it’s not high on their list of things to invest in, since people still crowd the shores for it, as is.

  • eicarr

    At the DL resort you can take a short walk back to your hotel room after nightly shows and collapse in bed. CONTEST OVER!

    • red014

      The Contemporary and the Beach Club are both short walks from their respective parks. And the Polynesian even pumps the music into their beach for Wishes, so you never have to leave your resort!

      • Malificent2000

        True that the Magic Kingdom resorts and Beach Club are close, but they only have 1 nighttime show close, where the Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel are all walking distance to 3 great night time shows, all of which you can see in one night if you prefer.

  • 106

    Disneyland always pulls through on nighttime offerings for me. Between crowd management that is incomparable to any shows on the Florida property and the original shows that seem to be copied on the east coast, WDW can’t hold a candle to DL.

    I always dread reading this feature as this format is terrible.

  • martinjbell1986

    Disneyland wins by far. World of Color is my favorite thing to watch between all Disneyland / Disney World parks. We got the wet zone last time and got drenched, but it was still a blast!

  • billyjobobb

    When we were in Florida, everybody told me that I just had to see illuminations. I saw it. I wasn’t impressed. There is no intimacy. The water is just too big and it dwarfs the whole show. The globe was so far out……

    I’m glad you didn’t even try to defend the Fantasmic! in Florida.

    But my all time favorite is the Halloween fireworks at Disneyland with the villains. That alone is worth the extra charge.

    And ever since I heard there was a holiday World of Color coming, I’ve had my reservations booked.

  • Orlando71

    I’ve never been to Disneyland and i only go to Disney World (live on East Coast), so i cant really compare, but i have to say the fireworks and light projections on the castle at mickey’s christmas party were the best ive ever seen, plus going in december and staying at the grand floridian you get a great view with a balcony and see it everynight along with the lagoon parade thing (forget what you call it).