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.


Unknown said...

The only thing that makes Illuminations better is around the Christmas holiday when they add the extra fireworks to "Let Their be Peace on Earth". It is one of the best firework shows ever and I get goosebumps every time I see it.

critikalerror said...

There actually is mention of a corporate sponsor several times before the show.

"Presented by Sylvania--a Siemens company."

Erica said...

I cry everytime We Go On is presented at the end of RoE.

Great article; I completely agree with everything you said about the show. It is distinctly different and unique, and I believe that is why so many people return to EPCOT just to see the show. :D

Anonymous said...

Really lovely post--not much more to add. I remember writing you a long e-mail sharing what I loved about the Millennium Celebration entertainment (RoE and Tapestry--focused more on the music)...but that was shortly before you "closed up shop", and I don't know if you ever read it.

This post addressed a lot of the things I was talking about in that e-mail. If you'd like, I can resend it--I'd still love to hear what you think about how the music (more specifically) ties into classic EPCOT attractions like SSE and Horizons, and how stunning it is that these beautiful Millennium compositions came about at a time when Disney was otherwise killing off that kind of classic EPCOT entertainment.

Kevin Carter said...

Agreed. I love many of the attractions that are tied into movies I've enjoyed before, but I don't get near the enjoyment out of them as I do the special things that Disney does that have no tie to anything else. Haunted Mansion, Pirates (before the movie tie-in), Everest, and yes Illuminations just to name a few.

I think its the joy of experiencing something new that is just as wonderful as those things Disney has given us on film. We know what we expect to see come at us in movie based rides because we've seen the movies. These attractions that are unique haven't defined the world for us completely yet and our minds are free to be inspired, to play, and to explore this new world laid out before us.

Frankly its something I wish Disney still did more of. There's no need to abandon the movie tie ins completely, but they don't need to abandon originality either. There's a place for both of them in todays Disney theme parks.

PS. Glad to see you back. There's things changing at Epcot and in a grand way. For the first time in a while I have immense hope for the future of my favorite park. And I think its partially due to fans like you and me online keeping the point made over and over.

Anonymous said...

there IS one thing I'd change and I've heard its happening. The LED lights on the globe are just not very good looking compared to a lot of other video screens around these days.

If they upgrade that so its actually more clear what they're trying to show, that would better.

David and Katie said...

Great article! However, I would say I still prefer the version of Illuminations prior to 1999 and RoE. I liked it when each different country of World Showcase was highlighted. I've always found the globe disappointing except for the fireworks that shoot out and the flame at the end (which don't always work).

Anonymous said...

Great post...RoE is my favorite attraction @ Disney,and you captured it perfectly...Although I don't want it to change,the SkyDance is going to have to be better to be appreciated.

Josh said...

Got to agree - my wife and I LOVE Illuminations, always have. I fondly remember the original laser-light show from way back in the day and, at the time, that was cool, but it didn't connect on an emotional level.

Illuminations is a brilliant visual experience, the music is gorgeous, and it connects on an emotional level in a way that I never would have imagined a fireworks show ever could.


Unknown said...

Wholeheartedly agree. Illuminations IS Epcot.

Joel said...


Anonymous said...

Great post! I liked the previous Illuminations, but RoE is special. I always make it the last thing I do on on any trip to WDW. I want to carry those feelings with me as I head home.

Anonymous said...

Hey Epcot82... great to see you're blogging again. I check the page every couple of weeks and - what a nice surprise! Welcome back, and thanks for keeping this place for Epcot geeks and dorks to visit and share.

BlinkingText said...

Right on! You nailed this perfectly.

brickbuilder711 said...

Very nice description. Right on!

I have a question, why some of the time is the globe centered before the show?

Faith said...

I love Illuminations, but I swear it's changed since the debut back during the Millenium celebration. They used to go around the World Showcase during Act II, lighting up the countries individually as they played footage on the globe. It's still a great show, but Act II seems really drawn out now...