Since 1996, I have been a frequent visitor to Walt Disney World. From my first steps onto Dixie Landings (now Port Orleans Riverside), to the first bite of a Mickey Premium Bar – something about Disney World caught my eye like nothing else in my life had before. Often, I get asked, what is my favorite thing that Orlando’s resort has to offer…the answer? Well, let me take you back a bit.
On my second or third childhood trip to Disney World, my mother and I passed by a sign that made my eyes light up. It featured Mickey, dressed in all his sorcerer goodness, battling the famous baddie Maleficent. Across on the top corner, in big yellow letters, read “Fantasmic!” and nothing more. Since this was pre-smart phones and mobile internet connections, I couldn’t exactly “Google” what any of this meant. But a year later, I would come to find out that the advertisement in question was for a nighttime show – the spectacular that would eventually become my favorite Disney-related thing in all of my Disney-loving-life.
To explain exactly why I love Fantasmic! (specifically Florida’s version) isn’t easy, but let’s start with the venue. The Hollywood Hills Amphitheater is huge, and even now at my much older age , I’m still amazed by its size and scope. Though simply just a bunch of flat seats in front of a rock on the water, there’s something about the atmosphere of the place that gets me excited for the show even before it begins. It has a quality that seems so completely separate from the rest of Hollywood Studios that it seems like it belongs at another park. But whatever it is that makes it special, some 20 years later, the magic hasn’t left the place. The same can be said for the walk to the theater – where you are greeted with tons of colorful (definitely 90s) renditions of Disney characters featured in the show. All this, plus that cast members that greet you as you walk in, makes me feel as if I’ve finally returned “home”.
The next is the specifics of the story itself. This is the tale of everyone’s favorite mouse battling against the forces of Disney evil. He’s up against a giant snake, a lot of water, and a Dragon – which might seem like a pretty basic description, but since this is a Disney show we’re talking about, it is nothing short of epic. Sure, some will yawn at this show for its dated technologically and pretty “by-the-books” storytelling, but for a young child, or someone that has never seen the show (live) before, it is incredibly overpowering. And when Mickey finally wins against his foes, and appears atop the mountain – fireworks blazing, it really tugs at your imaginative heart strings.
Even the scenes that are special to the Florida incarnation I find to be more interesting than those in any of the other renditions. The Pocahontas sequence, though short and a bit on the dark side, ramps up the energy big time and leaves the audience on the edge. Yes, it is a movie that isn’t as popular as Peter Pan (which is represented in the original California version), but it certainly ramps up the excitement and even adds to the more “intense” aspects of the show that the villains bring a few moments later. And the Lion King section (replacing Dumbo’s Pink Elephants/Jungle Book) brings in a much more colorful and cheerful nature to the show than its Disneyland counterpart.
But what ultimately takes my heart and breaks it into a million delightful happy pieces is the music. The main theme, composed by Bruce Healey, is the only piece of music that instantly, without even a full minute of melody going by, that makes me cry. The unforgettable tune, along with the lovely blend of Disney classics in the overall 20+ minute piece, make it one of the best in Disney Park music history. There’s a reason why many of the Main Street bands, and several compilation CDs, have featured the Fantasmic! theme, and that is all about the quality and radiance of Healey’s work.
In the end, Fantasmic! is a show that grabs me right in the “feelings” so to speak. It takes everything I’ve loved and continue to adore about Disney, and ultimately has become a symbol of my childhood. It might not be the show for everyone, and especially the WDW version might seem a bit dated these days – but there’s still a magic in this nighttime spectacular that no other one on property has. Illuminations has its fans, as does Wishes, yet there is something about Fantasmic! that keeps bringing me (and many others) back year after year, and I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.
Hopefully once the Star Wars expansion is finished, this incarnation of Fantasmic! can get an upgrade. Like Anaheim’s version, maybe we’ll finally get a fancy looking animatronic dragon or even an updated version of Jafar in his snake incarnation. But until then, I’ll be loving every bit of this show from start to finish, nostalgic tear after tear, and the magic it has will never stop enchanting me.