Spending a day in Epcot can include everything from journeying into imagination with a lovable purple dragon, to zipping around tight curves in a futuristic car of you own design, to wandering the markets of Morocco. However nothing captures the futuristic wonder and the coming together of cultures quite like the pyrotechnic masterpiece that is Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. Running each night at Epcot, Illuminations is a spectacular combination of laser lights, LED technology, water fountains, fireworks, and pyrotechnics set to an enchanting score relaying the importance of all cultures coming together to form the world we live in today. No day in Epcot is complete without taking in this wonderful show.
Illuminations first premiered in 1988 and was briefly edited in 1996 to Illuminations 25 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Walt Disney World Resort (this was so much better than the pink castle cake!). In 2003 the title was officially changed to Illuminations: Reflections of Earth and given a new narration focusing on the importance of our cultures and histories combining to result in the beautiful place we live in today. The current show is highly dramatic and a gorgeous sight to be seen.
Before you get to actually experience the show, you have to figure out where you are going to watch from. This alone can be a difficult task depending on several factors. First off, take note of how crowded the park has been throughout the day. If it is a high volume day, be sure to stake out a spot at least 45 minutes early if you want to be guaranteed an unobstructed view. On less crowded days I would recommend still being situated at least a half hour early. Also be conscious of the wind. Illuminations creates a lot of smoke and depending on where the wind is blowing you could find yourself with a view consistently obstructed by a cloud of smoke. Be sure to find a spot that is upwind to have an optimal view. Some great places to watch can include the second floor terrace of Tokyo Dining, the bridge between France and the UK, the USA pavilion with Spaceship Earth in the background, or at the very beginning of World Showcase so that you can see every country around the lagoon. As these are some of the most coveted spots, really be sure to arrive early to secure the best viewing possible.
As the show is about to begin, look around the lagoon for subtle changes including the appearance of speakers and lights. Where did these large structures suddenly appear from? Don’t worry, you didn’t miss them during the day as they only come out for the showing of Illuminations each night. The speakers and lights are hidden inside props all throughout World Showcase and unfold right before Illuminations is set to begin. To see one in action, look for a rock in the Canada pavilion from which a tall pole emerges bearing speakers just before the show.
When it is finally time for the show to start, all of the lights around World Showcase dim, making the large flames surrounding the lagoon prominent in the night. These flames are my favorite part of the show as they set the tone for the dramatic and wondrous journey you are about to embark on. The narration that opens the show also helps to set the tone as it perfectly introduces the theme of Illuminations: “We are here tonight around the fire as people of all lands have gathered for thousands of years before us to share the light and to share a story- an amazing story as old as time itself but still being written. And though each of us has our own individual stories to tell, a true adventure emerges when we bring them together as one.” This opening narration is then followed by the sound of someone blowing out a candle as the flames dim and the real show begins.
Illuminations runs for around fourteen minutes and builds slowly to end with a sweeping finale. After the introductory narration, there are fireworks, laser lights, small pyrotechnics, and water fountains for the first several minutes of the show. Soon after, a large rotating globe emerges from the back of World Showcase and begins to make its way towards the center of the lagoon. This is no ordinary globe as it displays the countries of the world followed by moving images and picture montages on the land masses themselves. The globe has more than 180,000 LED lights and weighs roughly 350,000 pounds, making in a huge Imagineering feat. It is used to display images of different cultures, nature, and most importantly people coming together. As the globe is rotating, the fireworks and pyrotechnics continue to accompany it. Slowly the countries of World Showcase begin to light up the night one by one with beautiful white lights. Notice how one space looks a little dark? This is because the Morocco pavilion does not light up out of respect for the culture. When we finally reach the finale, the globe begins to transform itself by opening outwards like a flower to reveal a central flame uniting all of the countries of Earth.
The show is truly a wonderful presentation of the ability that Disney and Imagineering has of taking a theme or story and presenting it in a beautiful and dramatic way. However, once the show is over there is still more to be seen before leaving Epcot for the night! My main recommendation is to stay where you are for the first few minutes after Illuminations ends. There is always a surge in the crowd toward both the main gate and the International Gateway as everyone tries to get out to the buses and boats to get back to their resort or car. If you stay in your viewing spot for a few minutes and wait out the rush there are more than a few benefits. First off you obviously avoid some of the crowd, but you will also be in store for a special treat! About thirty minutes after the end of Illuminations, the “burn off” occurs. This involves the main barge seemingly exploding into a giant flame, but really it’s a practical way to burn off the excess gas and other elements left over from the nightly show. It’s truly a sight to be seen, but it happens very rapidly, so be sure to be on the lookout. While waiting for the crowds to thin, also be aware of the back of Spaceship Earth as often there are laser projections onto it portraying the rotating figure of Earth as well as the spelling out of both Illuminations and Epcot. The final benefit to waiting out the crowds after the show is the ability to wander out of World Showcase at a leisurely pace and take in the nighttime ambiance of the countries as the park settles down for the night.
Overall, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is a show that simply can’t be missed. I love being able to try and find a new spot to watch every time I visit Epcot and am captivated the moment the beginning narration begins. I am already counting down the days until my next vacation when I am able to end my day in Epcot with this great show.
What is your favorite part of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth? Do you have a special place that you watch from every time? Let me know in the comments below, I would love to hear from you!
Caitlin Corsello was born and raised in New York. She graduated from Adelphi University with a Masters in Mental Health Counseling in 2012. Her love for Disney started as an infant and has continued to grow with family vacations to Disney parks almost every year since. She holds a particular interest in WDW’s parks and attractions, never passing up an opportunity to visit. She looks forward to continuing to explore and learn about all things Disney and to share that passion with readers.