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 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.
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 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.”
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.”