Friday, September 21, 2007
Illuminations: Reflections of Success
A sultry Florida evening. Though it's summer, this far south the sun is down by 8:30 in the evening. There's just the slightest hint of a breeze in the air.
The day has been exhausting. After this many hours being bombarded by the sights and sounds of theme-park attractions, it all seems a bit overwhelming. Frankly, you're tired. The thought of standing around watching fireworks might not seem appealing.
But there's something unusually serene about the setting you're in. Yes, it's a theme park, but unlike The Magic Kingdom or Disney-MGM Studios, you realize that you're a bit more peaceful than you might normally imagine. The lighting is dim. Music is playing all around you, but it's not blasting; indeed, it's rather appealing -- "world" music that is just upbeat enough to keep you peppy but not cloying or grating in any way.
The promenade whose edge you're standing on is remarkably wide. There's space here. Space and trees and moist air and water in front of you; almost like a beach party, giant torches provide much of the lighting, their flames flickering in the breeze.
This is World Showcase at night, and it's a place unlike any other. What you're about to see, if you've never seen it before, is hard to describe. There are fireworks, there is music, there's even a bit of a water show, but that doesn't begin to do it justice.
It's Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, and it's one of those things that EPCOT Ce-- er, I mean, Epcot -- and Disney do inarguably, undeniably right.
It's beyond peer and beyond criticism. It's downright perfect. So perfect, in fact, that the rest of Epcot, and the rest of the Disney theme parks for that matter, could learn a lot from it.
Immediately upon its premiere on Oct. 1, 1999, when it was called Illuminations 2000: Reflections of Earth (was anything not given the "2000" appendage in the waning days of the 20th century?), Illuminations ascended to a lofty position as one of the all-time great Disney attractions. So lofty, in fact, I'd argue Disney has a problem -- any changes to this show will be greeted with despair by fans, any wholesale rethinking or replacement risks winding up with something that's nowhere near as good as this.
Key to the success of Illuminations, I think, is one central, undeniable fact: Its very "Disney-ness" comes from the fact that there's nothing "Disney" about it at all. Illuminations is so satisfying because it espouses core Disney values without a single Mickey, Pluto or Stitch in sight.
Illuminations is upbeat. It has a story, though just barely. No, it's not "the" story that true fans realize is there, the "Chaos," "Order," "Celebration" flow. Like many pieces of performed, interpretive art (think ballet), the story lies beneath the surface -- you pick it up emotionally, not intellectually. It's felt, not told.
The story of Illuminations is one of being glad to be in the world, of realizing how much there is to discover, of a dawning awareness that we are all inextricably tied to one another, that there's a permanence to life, even if our individual lives are painfully transitory. Illuminations tells us that our world is beautiful, and through exploring our world through travel, art or music, we illuminate our lives and ourselves.
Those are very Disney qualities. They're upbeat, optimistic and maybe, on the surface, a bit pedantic. They're shamefully unsophisticated, but undeniably true.
The happy faces I see when Illuminations ends, the applause that follows that last burst of fireworks, that spontaneous exclamations of "That was beautiful" are the sorts of responses so much of what Disney creates try for and rarely achieve, perhaps because they unintentionally impose a consumerist filter on the message.
Illuminations is decidedly non-consumerist. There are few Illuminations trinkets and doo-dads. Until the very last moments, after the main show is over, there's no mention of a corporate sponsor, no reminder that you are in a "Disney" environment.
Illuminations takes it for granted that you know full well where you are, and proceeds from the assumption that you want to be entertained, you want to be astonished, you want to be moved. It doesn't try for humor, because its designers knew that a smile genuinely earned is better than one that's forced or coaxed.
And I'll say it again -- it succeeds despite (or, more likely, because of) a complete and utter lack of anything overtly Disney, save for a few fleeting seconds of Walt Disney's image in one of its visual montages. Despite music that becomes bombastic, overwhelming images and the thunderous fireworks, Illluminations is paradoxically subtle.
It conveys all of the values, all of the spirit, all of the inspiration and emotion of EPCOT's core themes (an ideal future, a peaceful world, a collaborative people) by combining music, images and a visceral experience with flair, creativity and, dare I say it, artistry.
Other Disney nighttime shows exist now and have existed before. Other theme parks offer nighttime spectacles to compete with Illuminations.
But back in 1999, Disney created something exquisite -- an experience that got it absolutely, positively, pitch-perfect right.
Lucky for us, it still does. Every single night. At EPCOT Center.