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LuminAria is no light magic, literally.
LuminAria is no light magic, literally

I spent most of this past weekend trying to decide how I was going to do my review of the new LuminAria show at California Adventure (DCA). At first I thought maybe a wartime theme would fit. I could compare some of the moments in this show where the explosions were so loud and the area was so full of acrid smoke to the bombing in Afghanistan. I'm sure there were just as many startled and crying children in Kabul as there were in Anaheim that night.

But that would be well, um, rather tasteless, so I skipped that one.

Then I thought, hey, why not interview a dead person? Maybe I could chit chat with Walt himself to comment on what Pressler has wrought in his former Winnie the Pooh parking lot. After all my discourse with Abe Lincoln was a very popular column (except for a few rather stubborn folks who didn't quite understand how I interviewed an audio- animatronic -- ever notice some of the staunchest defenders of the slipping standards at the Disney parks lately seem devoid of much magic themselves?  ;) )

But I did that already, so I also passed on that one, as well as one headline I was tinkering with "Thanksgiving comes early to DCA - the turkey has arrived!"

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

Now it's 2 am (deadline time for MousePlanet - see how hard we work around here for you?) and while still deciding how to approach the review, I decided to check my e-mail. As you may all know by now, I get a LOT of e-mail. Every day. Tons of it! And I really enjoy reading it all.

Sure, I get the occasional crank who writes screaming in ALL CAPS how negative I am - (funny as how that usually means my opinion - but not his of course - must absolutely be silenced). But the vast majority of notes are really quite thoughtful and offer additional insights to comments I (or the others on the site) may have made. I never fail to be impressed by how smart and kind the overwhelming majority of MousePlanet readers are.

Hitting the download button, I got the usual batch of stuff - and then I got one note, which finally helped me get a grasp on what I wanted to say about the show. The writer asked that it not be published - but I can summarize the thoughts in it for you:

The writer had been working for the Disney company for a long time and were asking themselves why they continue doing so. While meeting up with a friend at Disneyland, the e-mail writer was soaking up the wonderful atmosphere in Town Square, what with the Christmas music playing and the big Christmas tree all lit up. That experience underlined why they wanted to "stay with the magic" despite all the continuing cutbacks and ignorance of some of the most basic rules by current management that the company had gone by in the past.

A viewing of LuminAria saddened the writer - not to mention left the person choking from the smoke. The writer was disappointed by the lack of magic in the show, and that there was no special feeling in it for them. It had reminded the person of Light Magic. The person was then kind enough in finishing their email to note that I always tried to call it as it is, and they appreciated that.

I was really touched by the note - and it sort of gave me the blueprint of how I wanted to approach this review. Basically the show needs to be called out for what it is. That's what you the readers come to the site for, an honest opinion. But before I get going too much further in this review I want to make it clear I don't blame show head guy Steve Davison for this mess, nor do I blame all the hard working techs and folks behind the scenes. They are just trying to do the best they can, what with the limited resources they are given and the basically poor design and failed core concept of the DCA park itself.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

To be honest here, LuminAria isn't as bad as Light Magic was - but it definitely is yet another step into the abyss of mediocrity both Paul Pressler and Michael Eisner have been pushing the parks into lately. With DCA they seem to be trying to lower the Disney standards even further down the scale with each decision they make, every dollar they try to pare back, every what seems willful decision to NOT use the crown jewel across the way, Disneyland, as any kind of model.

The problems start before the show - when they start closing the Paradise Pier rides down early (the Screamin coaster, Sun (Ferris) Wheel, Maliboomer (space shot), Orange Stinger (the chain buckets), Mullholland Madness (the Mad Mouse) and the Golden Zephyr (the silver rocket things). Basically this means over half the park goes down starting about an hour early to accommodate the show.

You all know by now how little there is to do in this new park - and how woeful the capacity is on things. The last thing they need to do is begin to shut down rides even earlier - as it is bad enough most dining locations are already only open limited hours, and that they have cut back on parades and shows to try and save on the budget.

Then as you look for a place to stake out a spot for the show, you start to see how poorly laid out the surrounding walkways are around the Paradise Bay lagoon area itself. There are really only three good unobstructed viewing areas:

- The bridge into Paradise Pier (adjacent to the wharf area)

- Along where the Screamin coaster launches at Paradise Pier

- The amphitheater area across the way near the "bay area / San Francisco" portion of the park.

The first two areas suffer from one major problem, they are usually engulfed by the huge amounts of smoke this show generates which tends to drift off to them. We're not talking the kind of smoke you see when someone lights up a cigarette - we are talking huge billowing clouds of ash, almost like looking through a dense fogbank or erupting volcano at times.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

Did you know no one has done much research into what this smoke may do to you? Even when the fireworks are shot high above Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland - the winds sometimes can downdraft the smoke and embers into nearby neighborhoods. The Orange County Weekly even did a cover story on this very subject not too long ago, which you may want to read. As amazing that bombardment is, I don't think those neighborhoods suffer as much as visitors at DCA will during LuminAria - since everything is shot off right in front of you, and the vast majority of the show explodes no higher than the Screamin coaster itself. You bathe in this smoke, trust me.

The third viewing area (adjacent to the San Francisco area) also gets smoke - but it really suffers from way too many restricted walking pathways to get around in. There is also a nice grassy hill near the Golden Zephyr ride - but that is reserved for Disney honchos and the show tech crew, as apparently there is a fireworks control panel there. This third viewing area also offers the only real stunning backdrop to the finale of the show - when they turn on all the lights they have strung out all over the Paradise Pier attractions.  Once visitors realize that, they may jam the walkways there even more.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

Crowd control is a major problem - since unlike Disneyland which still pretty much offers the entire park (all attractions operating) as an alternative to Fantasmic or the Believe Fireworks show which helps to spread the crowds around most nights - they shut down the rest of DCA at the beginning of the LuminAria show. With nothing else to do, or nowhere else to go, every soul in the park ends up jammed in around the lagoon.

The night I saw the show, they decided to rope off half of the San Francisco side of the lagoon for Disney VIPs and disabled access - which happened without my knowledge as I stood there. Since I was not asked to leave I kept my place, as did everyone else near me who arrived just before and after me. As the cast members (CMs) began to restrict access I witnessed more than a few very angry customers as they were turned back until finally, five minutes before showtime the CMs opened up what was left of the area to folks standing out in the walkways.

As I got a little jostled by the crowd running in to get a closer spot, I got to watch all the Disney honchos up on the nice grassy knoll, many with nice folding chairs in a relatively un-crowded area having lovely chats and I wondered why none of them were out among the crowds in some of the less prime areas to watch the show. I can assure you it is a different experience when you get special privileges - and that may be one of the reasons they keep falling down so much on this park, no one actually goes and hangs out with the paying public.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

The show began, and then so did the really loud explosions and billowing smoke. It's one thing to watch Disneyland fireworks up so high above you - where the smoke drifts off and away, and the explosions are muted somewhat by the huge musical score blasted over all the speakers in the park. As Sue Kruse mentions in her review, the name LuminAria would suggest a beautiful classical piece would be played, or a real aria would be used. It wouldn't really matter what they picked through, since the explosions, pops, snaps, whizzes, fizzes and such are all so loud they tend to drown out most of the music anyway. (If you ever heard a CNN reporter from Beirut as artillery was going off over his head, you have an idea of how this show feels for the viewer.)

Since everything is so low level, and you are right up on the firing area, the other thing that happens is you literally start to feel as if you may be hit by something if the slightest breeze kicks up. During a couple of points in the show I actually almost ducked as I felt something was going to shoot into the crowd I was in, and a small child near me was hysterical that they were "going to burn all up!" Not exactly the type of warm holiday feeling they were aiming for eh?

While some of you may say, "well Epcot also has a low level lagoon show," the comparison is not valid, since the DCA lagoon is tiny, and generally most of the smoke in Epcot's show dissipates or rises up before the shoreline viewers get hit.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

The LuminAria music itself is just one long meandering piece without any real drama or excitement - they were obviously aiming for a Windham Hill type of experience. It's sort of like the orchestra was on Quaaludes. There is no razzmatazz showbiz moment in this show, like there is in Fantasmic. The score just sort of meanders on and on - like an infomercial for a feminine hygiene product.

Once the show begins you come to quickly realize you will only see three different things take place during it. One, they will shoot off a bunch of fireworks - two, they will show some film and projections up on some giant video screens - and three, they will shine some lights up from the water all around the place. There are no water fountains in this show, no barges or any kind of movement, and no performers. You suddenly start to feel you've seen it all after the first three minutes, which starts making the crowd restless. Light Magic had this same problem, they kept dancing, then danced some more, then danced yet again. It just kept going on and on and on.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

The worst part for me was the dinky video screens - why anyone at Disney entertainment would even think something like this would impress, especially after the whiz bang water projection screens used in Fantasmic I will never know. Frankly my widescreen projection TV at home is bigger and shows more exciting things on it. The kids drawings (collected from visitors earlier on in the day) are lost on such a small screen (not to mention most are just plain boring), and the video footage of the zombie- like Disney Stepford Children catching snowflakes (which is almost identical to what they used in Light Magic) only serves to remind you that there are TVs in the lagoon, instead of some live entertainment or an exciting show element.

There are a few fireworks effects that are new - most notably a Frisbee type of sparkler spinner - that seems to levitate up about six to ten feet up from a platform (I hope to God they are anchored somewhere - as a sudden breeze could send these flaming discs into the crowds). Supposedly they ran the show this weekend without a few effects, but even with more fireworks shot off the show will not change much from the tepid experience it is now. More pyro won't fix the lethargic music, or make the dumb videoscreens a better idea. And they ran a heavily advertised performance in front of a paying audience, so they were fair game for a review.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

The finale consists of one of those sparkler spinners at the top of a growing Christmas tree - whereupon they shoot everything off again then light all these candle- like lights all over the lagoon, and they also turn on all sorts of lights strung all over the Paradise Pier rides. With most of the lights on a few moments later for the crowds to see their way out with, it sort of looks and feels like they just made the last call at a bar.

There was one break earlier in the show, where some tepid applause took place, then at the end some more tepid applause quickly dissipated. Compared to the audience roar you hear at the end of Fantasmic, you could plainly hear people were underwhelmed by what they experienced that night.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

I stood around a bit afterwards and listened to folks talk about it, then sort of just stood around some of the survey takers at the exit. No one had much nice to say about it, ("Lame-oAria" was one popular description), and more than a few were saying this just was par for the new park, it didn't have much magic in it for them.

The entry gates to Disneyland were then jammed afterwards as both annual passholders and parkhopper visitors ran to try and catch the Believe fireworks. I shudder to think what Main St. looked like when that size crowd hit it all at once just before the Believe show started. From what I hear, they plan to avoid this problem on busy days by scheduling both the LuminAria and Believe shows at the same time in both parks.

The photo below shows the exit nightmare when someone forgot to switch the exit lanes out of the parking structure back out toward the 5 freeway that night - the entire building full of cars was waiting for the signal at Ball to change.

LuminAria is no light magic, literally

As you can probably guess by now, I cannot with any conscience recommend this show to anyone. I especially suggest if you have any kind of allergies / sensitivity to smoke, or any children with you that are afraid of loud explosions or fire that you completely avoid this experience.

Like I mentioned before, I don't blame anyone involved, and Steve Davison in particular should be kept clear of all this. He's delivered so many other times, and I do honestly believe he tried here on this one, so he can be allowed a clinker every once in a while. Maybe the guy is just mentally tired after so much work, that can happen.

What I do blame though is the small budgets Davison is given, the poor original design of the DCA park, and the increasing inability of current Disney management to understand what it is that in the past has made them so successful. DCA is a usually empty monument to management's lack of respect and understanding of what Disney "magic" can really be. 

When I found out later on that night from a kind source that the main reason we did not get Fantasmic at Disneyland this winter was not because of budgets, but to try and steer more customers into DCA and LuminAria instead, I got really upset. Yet again Disneyland, while meeting its numbers handily, continues to be hampered by that heroin monkey from across the way on its back.

Al Lutz can be emailed at: - Please keep in mind the level of email received may not allow for an acknowledgement


Sue Kruse also reviews the new show

MPEG VIDEO CLIP ONE (5 mg - broadband access is suggested)

MPEG VIDEO CLIP TWO (5 mg - broadband access is suggested)

Photos for this review were taken by Adrienne Vincent- Phoenix, Bruce Bergman & Al Lutz

MPEG video clips by Bruce Bergman


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