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With ‘World of Color’ and Festival of Holidays, Disneyland looks beyond its walls and goes global

The Disneyland Resort has a rather global feel this holiday season. The newest festive offerings at its California Adventure theme park look beyond the magic-encased bubble that is Southern California’s home to Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy.

Such an international flair seems somewhat timely.

“The world is chaos right now,” says Steven Davison, a phrase that contrasts with what just may be the jolliest job title in the lands. As executive of parades and spectaculars for Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s highly secretive arm devoted to new theme park experiences, Davison is often responsible for bringing a celebratory atmosphere to the parks, a place many of us turn to for a respite from, well, the chaos of our daily lives.

Disneyland, however, works best when it is not just a theme park but rather an aspirational view of society. And as the country turns inward after our divisive political season, the Disneyland Resort this winter looks out.

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“World of Color,” a program that since 2010 has injected nighttime liveliness into California Adventure, was updated this year with the holiday show “World of Color — Season of Light,” a water revue that helped inspire the park’s so-called Festival of Holidays, a street fair that celebrates Christmas, Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas/Navidad and Three Kings Day with food and live performances.

Throughout the year, “World of Color” makes the case that water fountains mixed with rainbows of light and projections of animated films should be more than a Las Vegas side show. In Davison’s mind, “World of Color” is a fanciful production that fulfills the needs of a theme park with the artistic zest of an installation, thanks largely to some grand water-based vistas and quirkily timed fountains.

This show is built on beautiful moments in time that are about family or caring or play or fun.

Steven Davison, Walt Disney Imagineering

But unlike previous iterations of “World of Color,” including the prior holiday show “Winter Dreams,” introduced in 2013, the year-in-the-making “Season of Light” avoids the easy route — that is, it opts not to simply recycle past Disney musical moments.

There is, for instance, no extended sequence of “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” the sort of scene that led some critics to note that “World of Color” occasionally felt like a “greatest hits” show in a lagoon. (Don’t worry, the cast of “Frozen” still makes an appearance.)

Consider this year’s “World of Color — Season of Light” not just a revamp but a change in thinking as to what the holiday show should be. Part of that, of course, was because of the freedom that a seasonal show can bring. By shedding the music of Disney films, “World of Color” is suddenly free from feeling like a gift shop on water.

“I have big philosophies on the holidays, especially here,” says Davison, the architect of “World of Color.” “If we’re doing a water show on ‘Moana,’ you know what that is. It’s a Disney product. Holidays are not. Holiday is you. Holiday is very different — it’s different religions, it’s different music, it’s completely inside of you.”

Getting “World of Color — Season of Light” right is especially important because, as Davison points out, “Disney doesn’t have a lot of holiday stuff, actually. There are very few pieces. I can list our holiday songs on one hand, and how many do people know? The stuff from ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’? But no one is going to care. There’s no emotional value.”

While the core of the year-round “World of Color” show remains — massive fountains, some as high as 200 feet in the air, creating, essentially, projected water screens — Davison with “Season of Light” has crafted an experience that reframes many recognizable Disney images. In less than 30 minutes, viewers glimpse more than 120 characters from 30-plus animated films, all of them given a holiday makeover.

Music includes “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole, “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley and more contemporary offerings such as “Wizards in Winter” by the Transiberian Orchestra and “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies” by Pentatonix.

“For the most part, this show is built on beautiful moments in time that are about family or caring or play or fun, set to these pieces of music,” he says, noting that many of the animated clips are from non-holiday fare.

A water show on ‘Moana’... is a Disney product. Holidays are not. Holiday is you...It’s different religions...different music. It’s completely inside of you.

Steven Davison, Walt Disney Imagineering

Compared to past “World of Color” shows, “Season of Light” is faster and more reliant on universal themes of togetherness or, in the case of one hectic Christmas light scene featuring Goofy, holiday excess. Lessons learned from past holiday “World of Color” programs were applied. That is, just because a scene had snow or ice or winter, that didn’t necessarily make it Christmas. Davison went more thematic rather than functional in his clips.

“When we were working on the first holiday show, I thought we’d do ‘Bambi.’ We spent all this time and energy making the ‘Bambi’ ice sequence just one solid sequence for ‘World of Color,’ and nobody cared,” Davison recalled. “Now, ‘Bambi’ went from a minute and 30 seconds to 20 seconds. And I wasn’t going to do ‘Frozen.’ I’m not putting ‘Let It Go’ in the show. It has nothing to do with the holidays. I don’t care if it’s about snow. Other than it’s set in winter, it isn’t holiday music.”

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Yet watch carefully, as behind the dancing fountains may be a homey fireplace, a bashful Donald and a cutesy, more family-friendly take on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (courtesy of Michael Bublé and Idina Menzel) that showcases the courting and the romance of many of Disney’s princess-based films.

Fountains and lasers write in cursive during more subtle moments, such as a scene dedicated to those we’ve loved and lost set to Amy Grant’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

For those who may think a theme park show doesn’t classify as art, Davison has packed plenty of symbolism, most notably during closing moments centered on “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World,” where subdued lighting and fountains represent us and those around us.

“The single fountain represents you,” Davison explains, adding he didn’t want the show to preach.

“It’s very subtle. It’s very interpretative. But it always comes back to that single fountain,” he says. “To just put a very simple message out there — peace on Earth, peace in our lives, peace together — was an important thing to say.”

It was initially was even broader in scope.

This holiday season, California Adventure has taken on the sort of international feel more often associated with Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. With global-inspired food near the park’s Paradise Pier section, as well as Bollywood, Klezmer, mariachi music and more, the park’s Festival of Holidays employs a broad-based view of the season.

All of it, with the exception of perhaps the food, was originally sprung from “Season of Light.”

“When we first pitched the show, the whole third section was world holidays. We spent months on it,” Davison says. “The more we looked at it, the more it became obvious it needed to be a live piece. It took a left turn, and it became what became the festival out there.”

Taken as a whole, Davison says, the spirit of the festival and the new “World of Color” holiday show hark back to one of Disneyland’s early attractions. It’s a vision of America that welcomes and champions outsider views rather than fences them out.

“I’m getting emails from people saying, ‘I had really lost faith in America and this brought me to a new place.’ I don’t want to say that’s the mission of the show, but it’s reminder,” Davison says. “We can make the world a better place. This is very much It’s a Small World.”


“World of Color — Season of Light”

Where: Paradise Pier, Disneyland Resorts’ California Adventure, Anaheim

When: Through Jan. 8. Shows 9 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. through Dec. 31 and Jan. 4 through 8; 9 p.m. Jan. 1; 8:15 p.m. Jan. 2 and 3.

Todd.Martens@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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