Recent additions make Disney’s Animal Kingdom an all-day experience, but one important step in its transformation will be an overlooked footnote in the epic tale of this park. It all ends happily, of course, but for a while there, the future of Animal Kingdom‘s big nighttime draw was a giant question mark.
While Animal Kingdom spent nearly two decades closing at sundown, it now boasts an entire menu of nighttime activities. In preparation for the summer 2017 opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar, a collection of exciting new offerings was slated to open in 2016. The Tree of Life would awaken in a delightful projection show. An eclectic dance party would fill the streets of Discovery Island. Kilimanjaro Safaris would begin after-dark expeditions thanks to new lighting design and an artificial sunset effect. At the centerpiece would be Rivers of Light, the first major nighttime spectacular ever hosted at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
As summer 2016 approached, all experiences were ready for their debut as Disney pushed a strong marketing campaign for the park’s expanded hours. Its calendars boasted an 11 p.m. close for the park every single night all summer long, an unprecedented difference from its usual operating hours. Then came a quick snag: Rivers of Light wasn’t ready.
Rivers of Light was initially announced as opening April 22, 2016, before getting postponed indefinitely, with no public reason given for the delay. Technical difficulties? Creative concerns? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure, but it was likely a mixture of both ends of the spectrum. Regardless, Disney now had a PR nightmare on its hands. Would guests want to visit Animal Kingdom during its highly publicized nighttime hours without a grand show to anchor their evening?
Evidently, Disney thought 1.) too much money and energy had been spent on the other park-wide additions to delay their openings until Rivers of Light was ready, but 2.) these new experiences weren’t a big enough draw to live up to the advertised after-dark transformation the park claimed to be. It needed a show.
In what will be looked back on as a somewhat bizarre, incredibly unique season of Disney history, a temporary show was put together—concept to opening—in 40 days. Enter The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic.
The show would be a placeholder until Rivers of Light got its act together, performed in the same venue: the newly christened Discovery River, the lagoon that sits in the shadow of Expedition Everest in the park’s Asia area.
From all angles, it made sense. Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book remake had just hit theaters the month prior to critical and commercial success, so the property and characters were familiar in guests’ minds. Not to mention Animal Kingdom had excellent luck with last-minute projects in the past. Festival of the Lion King had been created as a temporary production when a different idea fell through in 1998, but it was such a hit that it’s still here. Granted, it had to have been a longer timeline than a 40-day turn-around. Still, even if there was never the intention for The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic to stick around permanently, surely Lion King‘s success story had to have helped motivate the decision to create a placeholder show.
The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic employed clips from Favreau’s version of the story on water screens meant for Rivers of Light. Two jets of water from opposite sides of the lagoon formed a water curtain that was intended to meet in the middle, but was prone to visibility issues. Live vocalists performed songs from the 1967 animated version on a float in the lagoon while dancers and musicians playing authentic Indian instruments were positioned on several small stages immediately in front of the audience. No characters were involved.
The show delivered, I feel, what anyone could have expected it to under such rushed circumstances. While The Jungle Book is somewhat of an evergreen property and certainly had boosted relevance thanks to the recent success of the remake, it lacked the weight and prestige to carry its own in a nighttime show in a venue of this scale. The simplicity of the production was underwhelming when the backdrop was an enormous lake against an amphitheater suited to seat thousands. Theme park enthusiasts braced to grin and bear it all summer, while guests unaware of the production’s history or temporary presence became confused as to why it wasn’t as good as Fantasmic! or IllumiNations.
So let’s ask the bigger question here: Was it better to have something like this than to have nothing at all? Should Animal Kingdom have still stayed open late as advertised, but without a “big” show? In theory, if you’ve promised people a show, you should give them a show. But if that show is incapable of being exactly what you’ve promised in the first place, is that really fair to either party involved?
Here’s the thing… The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic wasn’t terrible. It was an enjoyable show with music that has withstood for decades as well as anything in the Disney songbook. What spelled doom for this show was its setting. The only other scenarios in which guests in a Disney theme park gather 1.) in a mass crowd 2.) at nighttime 3.) in a huge venue 4.) waiting at least an hour before showtime… are for major nighttime spectaculars. The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic was not a nighttime spectacular. It wasn’t designed to be. It didn’t try to be. But that’s what unknowing guests thought it would be. Sure, Disney aficionados knew what to expect. But is it up to the average guest to educate themselves on such intricacies of an attraction? No. And with those parameters in mind, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to roll out a placeholder. But like I said, maybe there was hope for a Festival of the Lion King miracle.
While the summer started off strong with guests coming to see what all this hubbub was about, it soon dwindled. By August, still with nightly 11 p.m. closings, anyone who chose Animal Kingdom as their after-dark destination practically had the park to themselves. It was sad to clock out at the wee hours of the night and see Rivers of Light tech crews arriving to begin their work day, staying overnight to work on the show, their unfortunate jackets emblazoned with “Opening Crew: Spring 2016.”
The summer soon concluded. With Disney’s promise of nighttime summer hours fulfilled (and admittedly admirably so all the way through), the park shortened its closings to 8 or 9 p.m. most nights, removed The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, and kept the other nighttime activities. Perhaps this is what should have been done all along, but maybe that advertised summer promise would have been too big of a pride pill to swallow, or too alluring to at least not try and see what happened. Regardless, when autumn arrived, park hours shortened again to 7 p.m., still no word on the progress of Rivers of Light other than knowing it was being worked on. Even as a Cast Member, there was no way of knowing when it would be ready.
Then, step by step, there were signs. The Rivers of Light floats began testing on open water in broad daylight in front of guests. Then we got the email we’d been waiting months to receive: We were invited to an exclusive Cast Member Preview of Rivers of Light the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
That night was one of the highlights of my Disney employment, hands down. To experience the very first performance of any show is exciting, but for a show with such a layered behind-the-scenes plight as this one (and one that sought to define the park’s purpose in such a summative way), you knew you were about to witness Disney history. It was made all the more special knowing the audience was 100% Animal Kingdom Cast Members and their families. All of us, of course, ad a sense of pride being there and wanted this to succeed. The chance to see it do so was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
There were some technical issues which were recognized and addressed. However, this was leaps and bounds superior to The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic and the finale that a full day spent in Animal Kingdom deserved. After two weeks of Cast-only Previews, Rivers of Light went dark again until its tweaks were apparently all sorted out. It debuted to the public on February 10, 2017. It went off without a hitch and has performed nightly ever since.
Now that Pandora – The World of Avatar is open, the multi-year expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is complete. Rivers of Light is enjoyed at the conclusion of a day of African safaris, runaway train expeditions, exceptional Broadway-caliber entertainment, intriguing animal encounters, and, yes, even a trip 4.4 million lightyears away to a distant moon called Pandora. As the park’s signature nighttime event, Rivers of Light will come to be synonymous with Animal Kingdom in the way that IllumiNations is synonymous with Epcot. In 10 years, will guests soak in the visual eye candy of Rivers of Light and remember the ill-fated Jungle Book show that once inhabited that very space? Probably not. Certainly very few guests enjoy Finding Nemo: The Musical and remember that even before its former occupant, Tarzan Rocks!, there was Journey into the Jungle Book on that very stage. Perhaps this movie just isn’t destined for this park, instead sentenced to obscure trivia footnotes and blog posts from those fascinated with its impressive trial and unfortunate error.
All images © Disney.
Did you see The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic? What’s your favorite extinct Disney show?
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.