Disney announced yesterday that the Animal Kingdom’s long-delayed Rivers of Light show would be put off yet again, to some unspecified date in 2017.
I got a chance to see the full Rivers of Light show a couple hours later. And now I understand why Disney wants more time to work on the show.
The good news is that Rivers of Light has some great moments:
- The pre-show includes “fireflies” in the trees and landscaping all around Asia and Discovery Island, while huge, projected shadows of elephants, lions, and other animals occasionally flit from tree to tree. It’s fantastic, because the fireflies and animals fit in perfectly with the setting. Disney should start using this now – there’s no need to wait for Rivers of Light.
- The scene introducing the animal floats is a great bit of stagecraft, and one of the show’s early “wow!” moments. They’re introduced near the end of what I think is
“Act I” of the show. At that point, your eyes are focused on four lotus flowers floating in the middle of the lagoon. The music stops, the lights go dark, and these technicolor animal floats come to life from a corner of the lagoon. It’s a great transition from one scene to the next.
- Near the end of third act is a bit where blue and orange lasers are projected along the arc of a water screen. The effect is clear and colorful, and serves to set off the top part of the water screen.
- Some of the images projected on the water screens are just perfect – there’s one scene where a peacock spreads its feathers out, and it’s scaled exactly right to fit into the fan-shaped water screen. Good color, good image, good show.
The other positive news is that Rivers of Light seems to fit the scope, scale, and theme of the park. It’s not an over-the-top production like Fantasmic!, because the Animal Kingdom isn’t the Studios. And the show writers mercifully stayed away from using Disney characters in the show, because the Animal Kingdom isn’t the Magic Kingdom, either. Animal Kingdom is its own park, and it looks like the show writers understand its theme and sense of place.
That said, the show needs work. Technical work and story work. Here’s a partial list of what I think needs attention:
- There’s no obvious storyline. And I say that as someone who looooves Epcot’s Reflections of Earth – the most abstract of Disney’s nighttime shows. If there’s a point or a plot to Rivers of Light, I don’t know what it is. We know there are shamans, but why they’re showing us animals is never fully explained. Is it educational? Inspirational? Have we just ingested psychedelics? Not sure.
- The show’s pacing is too slow, especially at the beginning. All that did was remind me how much Disney relies on fireworks to paper over parts of other shows.
- The soundtrack is unmemorable, while sounding too much like IllumiNations and other Disney shows. It’s as if you asked a computer to blend together every other Disney nighttime audio track, and add words about nature.
- Lots of the physical show elements are still missing. For example, Disney’s website says there’s supposed to be “nearly 100 Asian lanterns” floating on the lagoon during the show. None were actually there. Supposedly, the coordination of those 100 floating lanterns was one of the big technical challenges that delayed the show’s opening. It looks like Disney decided to solve the problem by deleting them, but the show needs them.
- The video projection technology needs work. Some of the scenes are crisp and clear – the peacock one above, for example. But most of the time, the light wind that we had at night tended to blur the video. We couldn’t tell whether the vaguely orange blob in front of us was a monkey, a lion, or an orangutan’s butt.
I’d be surprised if we see the really-for-real-final version before summer 2017. I’m told the decision to hold off on Rivers of Light came from Bob Iger himself. In this instance, I think it’s the right choice.
Here’s the full text of Disney’s statement on Rivers of Light, confirming the 2017 debut:
Rivers of Light – Coming in 2017, this powerful theatrical production takes Disney’s Animal Kingdom guests on a magnificent emotional journey – a visual mix of water, fire, nature and light choreographed to an original musical score. Continuing the park’s transformation from a day-into-nighttime experience, the amazing after-dark show on the banks of Discovery River celebrates the majesty of nature and the connection between animals and humans in the world. With innovative and never-before-seen technology, Rivers of Light will be unlike any other production ever staged at Walt Disney World Resort.