The ongoing saga of Rivers of Light has intrigued and frustrated Disney fans going back to the first official Disney Parks Blog announcement in May 2014. Originally scheduled for a 2016 opening, the nighttime show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom struggled to find its footing before it even began. Reports of disastrous cast member previews and technical issues made me wonder if Rivers of Light would ever see the light of day. Could Disney put together an effective show that didn’t use IP and worked in the tricky Animal Kingdom? There were still a lot of questions even when Disney announced an opening date of February 17th earlier this year. They needed Rivers of Light to keep guests in the park at night and to prepare operationally for Pandora; would it all come together?
When I booked our Walt Disney World trip for mid-March, I did not expect to see Rivers of Light during our vacation. The Animal Kingdom day would give us a much-needed nighttime break in the middle of the trip. Once Disney announced the change, it adjusted our plans considerably. I made FastPass Plus reservations for the show and shifted to a later morning start. This change also gave me a chance to check out the park’s nighttime entertainment. It was a blast to get a different look at a place I typically visit in the daytime, and the park was more vibrant at night.
The seating for Rivers of Light is situated at the back of the park and split into areas for FastPass, dinner package, and standby guests. If you don’t have a FastPass or package, I’d suggest getting in line for the standby seats very early. The capacity is reportedly only 5,000 seats, which is not enough for everyone in the park. Disney has wisely added a second show to accommodate more guests. If you’re able to stay later, getting a seat will be easier at that point. The increased attendance from Pandora could make even that a challenge on busy days.
FastPass guests must arrive 15 minutes before the show to secure a seat. This was a challenge for us after delays with our ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris. We exited with about 30 minutes to reach the stadium and pick up food along the way. After a comically fast but surprisingly good dinner of chicken fried rice, chicken strips, and fries at the Yak & Yeti Local Foods Café, we rushed to grab seats. The stadium was nearly full, but the third row in front was empty. I was nervous of a Shamu-like soaking experience, but it was impossible to pass up such a prime spot.
Setting the Stage
I had purposely avoided watching videos or reading too much about Rivers of Light, which kept it surprising. My expectations were low, and that made all of it refreshing. The experience starts before the official time and builds the mood. Flickering lights and animal images appear on the trees and are striking from the view across the lagoon. There are few bright lights in the area, which adds to the natural feeling. Despite sitting near many other guests, it’s quite a relaxing atmosphere.
The excitement begins with the arrival of a group of floats shaped like pink lotus flowers. The bright objects spread out across the lagoon and prepare for the next steps. These watercraft aren’t just props and set the foundation for the wonders to come. They’re joined by two large boats holding each shaman that helps present the show plus boats with animal shapes lit up on top of them. They include tigers, elephants, and turtles to help maintain the focus on love for nature.
It’s hard to explain the anticipation that builds during the pre-show experience. The slow-burn approach draws the audience into the scene and doesn’t overwhelm us too quickly. The more languid pace matches the feeling of visiting the Animal Kingdom. This isn’t the constant rush of attractions and shows that you experience at The Magic Kingdom. Rivers of Light embodies the quiet sense of discovery that is the essence of this park. This description may sound like fluffy PR language from Disney, but it also matches my feelings during recent Animal Kingdom visits.
The Main Event
I won’t try to describe every part of Rivers of Light because that wouldn’t do it justice. There’s little excitement in talking about projections, lights, and effects repeatedly. I can only say the word “magical” so often. Instead, I’ll describe how it felt. My favorite nighttime show at Disney World is Illuminations because it fits perfectly within Epcot. It also seems original and not another way to present Disney movies. Illuminations is quintessential to Epcot, and I feel the same way about Rivers of Light. I don’t care if there’s a logical progression; what matters is the emotional connection.
Criticisms of Rivers of Light are valid, and certain parts seem incomplete. Some projections look vivid, while others are hazier. Even so, it was my favorite experience of our trip. I’ve enjoyed World of Color and Fantasmic, but neither connected with me on the same level. The lack of the obvious in Rivers of Light is also one of its strongest attributes. The theme of nature’s beauty works because it’s a gorgeous show. The message can be obvious yet still work because it’s an original experience.
Rivers of Light represents a new stage in projection technology and clicks because you’re close to the action. When the boats move directly in front of us, the animal images feel personal and not just part of a gigantic spectacle. Grand moments cover the lagoon, but they aren’t the entire presentation. There is no obvious finale in the typical vein, and that’s okay. I enjoyed the ways that Rivers of Light differed from the typical Disney show. It felt ethereal, artistic, and not just another way to sell a product. I loved every minute of it.
When the show ended, my first thought was that I needed to buy the soundtrack. Disney is a commercial machine and would definitely have a CD for sale, right? Amazingly, they have released some merchandise but not a soundtrack. It’s not hard to stream online but seems like a missed opportunity. So much of Rivers of Light’s success comes from the score, written by Don L. Harper. It falls a bit short of Illuminations but is still remarkable. This isn’t an obvious theme park show with the basic music. You don’t come out of the park humming any tunes, though the song “We Are One” by Mark Mancina (Moana) is memorable.
The best Disney music succeeds because it creates a mood that extends beyond the parks. The rousing drum beats of the Rivers of Light score drop me right back into that theater. It complements the show’s positive atmosphere without being too obvious. A few moments veer a little too much into Survivor theme territory, but those are the exceptions. It’s mostly a joyous celebration that combines well with the rest of the show. This music fits the Animal Kingdom’s setting with harmonies and ambient sounds creating the right tone. In a similar way to Illuminations, it’s the quiet moments that set the stage for the crescendos that follow.
I loved Rivers of Light but recognize that it’s not for everyone. On a recent episode of The Disney Dish podcast, Len Testa explained that ratings from young kids are the lowest for this show. Jim Hill also described a possible update in three years that would include The Lion King. While I’m sure that Disney would do a good job, it would be unfortunate to add IP to his show. We don’t need another way for “Hakuna Matata” to play at a Disney park. I’d rather see Disney work to enhance what already clicks with Rivers of Light. The original marketing info described floating lanterns as part of the show. I’d love to see them added if it’s technically possible.
Regardless of what happens down the road, I’m thrilled to have the chance to see Rivers of Light in its current form. It hearkens back to the reasons why I loved the Disney theme parks as a kid and continue to enjoy them today. Nothing hits the lowest common denominator here, and even the technical glitches make it feel less stale. I’ll close with some additional photos that should help explain the power of Rivers of Life for this normally skeptical guy.