Ranking the Walt Disney World Nighttime Spectaculars

Disney wants to make every guest experience as magical as possible. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is by having nighttime shows at each park for guests to end their day on, be is a firework show like Happily Ever After or a stage show like Fantasmic!. Nonetheless, each show offers a unique experience for guests young and old alike. I decided to rank each of the shows as per my personal preference, and even throw in a few honorable mentions from another Disney park.

#5: llumiNations: Reflections of Earth at EPCOT

The longest current running nighttime firework show at Walt Disney World takes place at EPCOT. IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth has been captivating audiences in it’s current iteration since 1999. The show features a spinning globe in the middle of the lagoon surrounded by the countries of World Showcase, with accompanying lasers, lights, and fireworks to light up the night sky. The show also feature video projections onto the globe showcasing the different cultures of the world, ending with each Pavilion in World Showcase being dressed in Christmas-style lights outlining the countries.

IllumiNations is a good show, however I personally rate it the lowest of the parks as it has been around without any major updates for almost 20 years. Rumors began circulating a few years back when Rivers of Light was announced about Disney getting the FCC’s permission to use drones in a nighttime show. It is now being speculated that this will be for IllumiNations’ replacement, which I am hopeful will be coming soon with all the changes occurring at EPCOT over the next few years

#4: Rivers of Light at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Rivers of Light is the long-awaited nighttime show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Unlike most nighttime shows, this show has no fireworks. Instead, the show features actors on boats, lights, and fire across the lake by Expedition Everest and the Asia area of Animal Kingdom. The big feature of the show are 4 giant lotuses that spin throughout the lake and change to different vibrant colors. The show also utilizes different styles of projection mapping, most notably seen on the park’s center piece The Tree of Life. Finally, the show uses floats depicting different animals as they float across the lake

This show had large expectations to live up to as it was delayed roughly up to a year after it’s original release date. Did it succeed? Yes and no. The show as a whole is technically phenomenal in the way that the boats move and the projection mapping on the Tree of Life. However, the show has no real story and has issues with flow. Rivers of Light also does not feature any Disney characters, be it animated or live action. The show definitely should be seen once, however multiple viewings may not be something people seek out.

#3: Fantasmic! at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Disney’s Hollywood Studios brings films to life and makes you feel like you are a part of the movies. The park is currently in the process of a lot of changes, but one thing that has stayed the same is Fantasmic!. This nighttime stage show features Mickey Mouse being tormented by different Disney villains across all of Disney’s animated films. Ursula, Judge Frollo, Governor Ratcliffe, Hades, Mufasa, and many more are featured attempting to torment Mickey. The show features a large island were many actors play out different parts of Disney films coincided by different animated projections on fountains of water to show off most of the story. The big draw of the show is the 45-foot dragon Maleficent that spits fire onto the lake in front of guests, something Disney has received many awards for both in Walt Disney World but also in Disneyland in Anaheim and in Tokyo.

This show has always been well received by guests and it is personally one of my favorites. The effects on the water are incredibly well done, something that we’ll talk about a bit later with a special on World of Color. The Maleficent dragon is mind-blowingly massive and cannot be missed. Speaking from experience, the show can be slightly frightening for kids due to how large said dragon is. However, I do recommend bringing kids to the show as they will, overall, have a great time.

Recently, the Fantasmic! show received some upgrades out in the Anaheim Disneyland version. There has been no indication that these changes, which include a scene featuring Jasmine and Aladdin from Aladdin flying around on a magic carpet and a few other scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean and Tangled, will be coming to the Hollywood Studios’ version of the show.

#2: Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular and Disney Movie Magic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Hollywood studios doesn’t end at Fantasmic, however. The park also boasts two other nighttime shows,Disney Movie Magic and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. Disney Movie Magic is the newest nighttime show and uses projection mapping across the Chinese Theater to show different Disney live-action movies spanning across history. The show is also the first non-character meet and greet to feature Marvel characters at Walt Disney World, showcasing Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy. The show is not very long, as it serves to be a bit of a pre-show before Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular.

Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular also takes place in the plaza outside the Chinese Theater at Hollywood Studios. Similar to Disney Movie Magic, the show utilizes a large amount of projection mapping depicting different scenes ranging from The Phantom Menace to The Force Awakens. One of the strong points of the show is the usage of the Star Wars soundtrack and use of fireworks and laser lights in conjunction with the show.

I decided to group these two together as they start usually within 10 to 15 minutes of each other. Being completely transparent, Disney Movie Magic is the only show I have not seen in person, as it debuted about 2 weeks after my last trip. What I have seen in video, however, looks incredible; specifically the part of the show depicting Doctor Strange. Star Wars, on the other hand, I have seen multiple times. Any fan of Star Wars will absolutely love this show. The use of fireworks in conjunction with the soundtrack and scenes being mapped on the theater are nearly perfect. The lasers are used to depict X-Wings and TIE Fighters shooting one another and makes it feel like they are coming from the ships themselves. I recommend this show over Fantasmic! simply due to being a big Star Wars fan. If given the chance, definitely check out both shows.

Honorable Mention: Disneyland Forever and World of Color at Anaheim Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure

Ok I have to cheat just ever so slightly. I was given the chance to visit Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim during the 60th anniversary. Up until what will be my number one, which I’m sure people can figure out at this point, both shows were considered my number 1 and 2 nighttime shows across all of Disney. World of Color is a revitalized version of the original show that used to occur at Paradise Pier in California Adventure. The show utilizes similar water projection technology that Fantasmic! uses. Similar to Rivers of Light, there are no fireworks used in the show. Instead, the show focuses on water screen projections and fountains to tell a story.

The downside of this nighttime show was that it no longer exists. Disneyland Forever was the replacement to Fantasy in the Sky and was a massive success. The show utilizes projection mapping to bring Main Street USA alive, including the buildings dancing. During the show’s obligatory “Let It Go” section, snow rains down on guests watching from Main Street. The soundtrack is also spot on, choosing the proper Disney songs to accompany the spectacle in the sky. The show ended in September 2016, with the Fantasy in the Sky show returning. While no real reason to this has been given, rumors speculate that costs of Disneyland Shanghai forced the company to switch to a cheaper show. If you are interested in watching the show, check out the video below

(credit to The DIS for the video)

#1: Happily Ever After at the Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom has always been host to an amazing fireworks show. When it came to replacing Wishes, many guests and fans of the show were hesitant to accept a new replacement. After the debut, however, Happily Ever After silenced most of those complaints. Debuting in May 2017, Happily Ever After uses similar projection mapping technology seen in Disneyland Forever to bring Cinderella’s Castle to life. Mixed with a very catchy pop song, Happily Ever After utilizes almost every major animated release up until Moana (the only ones I can think of not represented are Lilo and Stitch, Lady and the Tramp, and Atlantis, however there may be a few more). Many animated movies that are normally not seen throughout the parks, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan, have very impactful scenes.

The last time I went to Walt Disney World happened to be on the debut night of Happily Ever After. This show, to me, is now the standard across all Disney parks. The projection mapping done on the castle makes it feel like the castle is realistically taking the color and shape being shown on it. The music is mixed incredibly well, seamlessly transitioning to a new song and a new theme altogether. Seeing the movies mentioned above are a very great surprise as they are usually not highly represented in the parks. After the show, the castle stays illuminated to the final style of the castle, giving exiting guests one last look at the beautiful projection mapping. The only thing I can say is “reach out and find your happily ever after”.

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments. Look forward to our next ranking list coming soon!

Chris Payne

Disney enthusiast from Oklahoma. Hoping to spread my love of Disney around the world!

2 thoughts on “Ranking the Walt Disney World Nighttime Spectaculars

  1. I have to disagree with you putting illuminations down in that bottom spot. You cannot beat illuminations for uplifting music story and fireworks combined. Personally I can’t imagine Epco
    t without it !

  2. I agree completely with Diane. Illuminations is timeless.

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