Disneyland faced a daunting challenge with the remake of the 25-year-old "Fantasmic" nighttime spectacular: How do you update a beloved modern classic without alienating its die-hard fans?
The Anaheim theme park has succeeded with a retooled show that largely hews to the original story line with just a sprinkling of new characters and technological flourishes.
"Fantasmic" was dark for a year and a half while the Rivers of America was drained and shortened to make room for the construction of the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge themed land set to open in 2019.
For the uninitiated, "Fantasmic" projects animated videos onto 60-foot-wide water mist screens in the Rivers of America. The new version of the show adds video mapping technology to the existing colored fountains and pyrotechnics.
Depending on your point of view, the updated show remains largely intact or has completely changed. For casual visitors, the revamped "Fantasmic" will seem largely familiar with a few minor tweaks. For hardcore Disneyland fans, the changes will be more pronounced and traumatic.
I fall somewhere in between these two camps. I found that a lot of my favorite parts of the old show were still there to enjoy. It felt like I was still watching the "Fantasmic" I've always remembered. While at the same time, the show looked better from a technical standpoint. Ultimately, for me, it was a nice mix of the old and the new.
After the show, I talked with David Duffy, an entertainment director at Disney parks, about the changes to "Fantasmic."
The goal of the update was to add a sprinkling of new characters and modern technology to keep the show fresh and relevant for the next generation of "Fantasmic" fans, Duffy said.
"We never want to use technology just for the sake of using technology," Duffy said. "We want to use it to enhance the storytelling."
Disneyland's entertainment team made a conscious effort to maintain the original story that takes the audience on a journey through Mickey's imagination, Duffy said.
"We didn't want to touch that," Duffy said. "We didn't want to mess that up."
The pent-up anticipation of "Fantasmic" fans was evident at the show I attended. Shrieks of joy greeted Mickey Mouse when he first appeared on the Tom Sawyer Island stage. It sounded like a Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium, circa 1966.
The new video mapping projection technology that painted Lafitte's Tavern was the most obvious change to the show and also my favorite addition. It was hard to take my eyes off the mesmerizing images of dancing elephants and marching brooms projected on the old tavern.
The new "Lion King" segment was the most subtle of the changes, with the silhouette of Sorcerer Mickey transforming into a newborn Simba on the mist screens. The brief "Lion King" scene seamlessly transitioned into the "Jungle Book" section of the story with the 100-foot-long Kaa slithering across the stage in a new neon day-glo snakeskin.
The biggest change to "Fantasmic" caused my 17-year-old daughter, Hannah, to wage a silent protest midway through the show. In the new segment, Peter Pan and his pals have been displaced on the Sailing Ship Columbia by Capt. Jack Sparrow and the "Pirates of the Caribbean." The out with the old, in with the new Jack-for-Peter swap upset the Pan-loving Hannah to her very Disney core.
Essentially, the only thing that's really changed about the fight choreography on the ship is the costumes. The video mapping on Tom Sawyer Island was more interesting than anything happening on the Columbia, with digital flames engulfing the tavern before the building morphed into a pirate ship laden with cannons.
Disney reportedly tested out video mapping of the individual pirates on the Columbia that would have transformed the flesh-and-blood buccaneers into skeleton scallywags in an homage to the movies. The difficulty was getting the performers to perfectly hit their marks on a moving ship. Fans can hope Disney eventually masters the special effect and introduces it in future versions of "Fantasmic."
The coolest new special effect in the show was a flying carpet carrying Aladdin and Jasmine above a fog curtain simulating clouds. The convincing-looking illusion kicked off the show's romantic interlude featuring dancing princes and princesses. In the rebooted show, Rapunzel boots Snow White off one of the floating barges, swapping out one of Disney's oldest princesses for one of its newest.
The show still concludes with Mickey vanquishing a 45-foot-tall fire-breathing audio-animatronic dragon before a riverboat filled with Disney and Pixar characters delivers a trademark "happily ever after" ending.
It was the little details that surprised me the most and will keep fans coming back to "Fantasmic" in search of previously missed moments. Near the end of the show, I noticed the mist beneath a rainbow water spout was digitally painted with bubble projections. It's that sort of attention to detail that is a Disney hallmark.
Even Duffy, who has watched the updated show numerous times, hasn't spotted all the new details in "Fantasmic" yet.
"They've told me Bambi is in the show somewhere," Duffy said. "I have yet to find Bambi in the show. It's a hidden Bambi instead of a hidden Mickey."
The 25-year run of "Fantasmic" largely parallels my experience with the park. I remember when "Fantasmic" debuted at Disneyland in 1992. I was working the night shift as a copy boy at the Orange County Register. They were holding a front page color position on deadline for a photo of the new Disneyland show. It was my job in that pre-digital age to run the picture from the photo department to the page one editor. I still remember his unprintable profane reaction when I handed him a fuzzy photo of an animated cartoon projected on a mist screen in the dark. After a quarter-century, pictures still don't do "Fantasmic" justice. You have to be on the banks of the river to fully appreciate the enormous scope of the show.
I have always had a love-hate relationship with "Fantasmic." I enjoy the show but abhor the bottleneck crowds it generates. I prefer "World of Color" at Disney California Adventure, mostly because Disney uses that massive water canvas to tell an ever-changing series of related stories.
Alternate versions of "Fantasmic" that change with the seasons like "World of Color" remain a possibility, Duffy said.
"We have no plans to do that right now," Duffy said. "But I definitely wouldn't rule it out."