The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Everybody Neat and Pretty? Then On With the Show!by Tom Richards, contributing writer
First-time guests to Disney parks are often amazed by the amount and the quality of live entertainment. From the Dapper Dans on Main Street U.S.A. to the Voices of Liberty at World Showcase, the engineered wonders created by Walt Disney Imagineering are augmented by live entertainment, which adds a personal, human element to the experience of Disney's themed lands. Walt Disney World entertainment runs the gamut from the aforementioned singers, who provide a more intimate experience, to the mega-spectaculars like Illuminations at Epcot. Whatever the venue or the scale of the entertainment, live productions delight and amaze Walt Disney World guests.
When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, the emphasis on live entertainment in the form of shows, tours, and characters set this theme park apart from its siblings. Over the years, Disney's Hollywood Studios (as it is now called) hosted many of Disney's best—and sadly some of its most infamous—live shows. In the early days of the Studios, live shows such as Hollywood Hollywood at the original Theater of the Stars entertained guests at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. This show cast the famous Disney characters as Hollywood stars, and the songs and dances reflected the "golden age" of Hollywood.
In 1990, Hollywood Hollywood was replaced by Dick Tracy Diamond Double Cross. Based on the Touchstone Pictures big summer release starring Warren Beatty and Madonna, this show featured music from the score and a condensed version of the action-adventure film. The music in the character show was good, but unfamiliar to younger members of the audience, and the overall silliness made the show tedious for adults. The Dick Tracy show featured flashy costumes, tricky choreography, and a fast-paced script, but like the film that inspired it, the whole thing felt somewhat out of character for Disney. The guns and violence clashed with the glamour and glitz of the production.
Another early show, Meet the Muppets, was one of the first to feature Jim Henson's famous characters in a Disney theme park show. While the Muppets are normally endearing, the cast of Meet the Muppets appeared as walk-around characters that seemed so big and out of proportion that they never felt quite right. Other Henson properties were seen in the early Nineties, including the cast of Dinosaurs, whose appearance in 1991 was more of a promotional stunt than a show, and Bear from Bear in the Big Blue House in an early version of Disney Live.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Mighty Power Rangers also performed on or near the Streets of America for a time, but while the costumes were good, the shows fell rather flat.
Daily parades were far more successful than the above-mentioned shows. The Aladdin parade made its way down Hollywood Boulevard in 1992, featuring huge, colorful floats—including the Genie—marching bands, and dancing girls, much like the entrance to Agrabah in the film. In fact, the entire affair was set to the tune of "Prince Ali." Later, Mulan had her own parade here as well, particularly appropriate as hers was the first feature animated film produced entirely at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Florida that was located at the Disney-MGM Studios.
One of the very best live shows ever produced by Walt Disney World was featured at the Backlot Theater at the Disney-MGM Studios: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This memorable production cleverly used puppets to act out the prologue of the musical and to portray the character Djali. The staging was incredible, and the theater was covered to keep cast and audience comfortably out of the sun and rain. Unlike so many other live Walt Disney World shows, the actors sang their parts live and wore Broadway-caliber costumes that showed their faces and enabled them to act more fully and convincingly. In many ways, only Aladdin, A Musical Spectacular at Disney California Adventure rivaled this show for its theatricality and sophistication. We still miss this wonderful show.
Let's take a look at the current shows running at Disney's Hollywood Studios.
The Voyage of the Little Mermaid
Combining puppetry, live actors, music, and special effects galore, this mainstay of Disney's Hollywood Studios has entertained guests since the early 1990s. The production faithfully retells the story of Ariel, the mermaid who longs to be human, complete with the Academy Award-winning score from the 1989 animated classic that ushered in the second "Golden Age" of Disney feature animation. The story is told briskly in about twenty minutes, so there's little time to catch one's breath, but it's fun, well-staged, and entertaining.
When The Little Mermaid wowed audiences and critics alike, the Disney Company was caught somewhat off-guard. Merchandise, shows, and attractions played catch-up as demand for all things "mermaid" grew. This show, in many ways, represents one of Disney's first attempts to capitalize on the popularity of the strong-willed undersea princess. Now that Ariel and friends have their own attraction in the Magic Kingdom's new Fantasyland forest, it seems that the space here at Disney's Hollywood Studios might be used to feature another Disney classic. There's an endless list of charming, memorable films just waiting in the wings to be transformed into stage musicals. As lovely as Ariel and her friends may be, it's time they share the stage with other Disney characters.
Beauty and the Beast, Live on Stage
Based on the beloved 1991 film, this show proved so popular that Disney eventually built a new theater at the end of Sunset Boulevard to host the show. Much like The Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Live on Stage presents an animated feature in condensed, musical form. The costumes and sets are dazzling, as one would expect, and the music lovely as the "tale as old as time" of Belle, Beast, and Gaston is told again. This show was Disney's first attempt at producing a live musical based on one of its films, and the special effects and costumes certainly reflect time and effort on the part of its designers. One drawback, however, is that only Belle and Gaston are presented as "face" characters, while the other actors are confined to traditional character costumes that severely limit their ability to show emotion and interact with one another. Surely some tasteful new costumes, like those featured in the Broadway version of this story, would be appropriate here.
Much like the Little Mermaid, however, now that Belle has a cottage, a show, and a restaurant in New Fantasyland, it might be time for Disney to produce a new live show for this venue.
One of the most spectacular of Walt Disney World's live productions, Fantasmic! features everything associated with the magic of Disney: fireworks, music, lasers, and Disney characters galore. Based on the original show designed for the Rivers of America at Disneyland, this version boasts its own theater, stadium seating, special dining options, and Fastpass+ reservations.
The plot of the show itself is solid, pitting the ever-optimistic Mickey against the forces of evil—represented by some of Disney's best villains. The stage is immense, the special effects epic, and the score wonderfully memorable, including original music written specifically for this production.
However, compared to the Disneyland show, the Disney's Hollywood Studios version is lacking and definitely needs an upgrade. The storyline could be more linear, the films represented could be more inclusive, and the Pocahontas scene should be completely changed (Disneyland's Fantasmic! with the Sailing Ship Columbia and a Peter Pan scene spoiled me, I admit).
The popularity of this show means it typically has long lines well in advance of showtime, so seeing it is a major time commitment. We tend to visit Fantasmic! only once every three or four years, and until there's an upgrade, we probably won't go again (unless, of course, the kids list it on their "must-see" list).
Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show
Another larger-than-life stadium houses one of the Studios' newest additions. The Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show opened in 2005 and is an import from the Disney Studios at Disneyland Paris. It is set in a Mediterranean village where an action movie is being "filmed" before your very eyes. There are sports cars, motorcycles, watercraft, and a huge video screen. The show is loud, exciting, and fun… once; this show doesn't hold up well for me on repeat viewing. I hope the attraction is removed and the space utilized for the long-rumored Star Wars attractions slated for the former Backlot area.
The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
One of the attractions that premiered when the Disney-MGM Studios opened in 1989, this 35-minute live stunt show is packed with all the adventure found in the Indiana Jones movies. The stunts are just as impressive now as they were in 1989. The action scenes are wonderfully realized and include three scenes—the giant boulder, the market place, and the Nazi jet—that continue to thrill and amaze.
For frequent guests, however, the humor and surprises are no longer fresh. Rumor has it that the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular may fall victim to a larger Star Wars presence in this park. If you've never seen the show, it might be wise to make one more call on Indiana Jones before his stunts become a part of Disney history.
While I truly dislike major changes to or closures of permanent attractions—like the ruined Journey Into Imagination or the much-missed World of Motion and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—I do like to see frequent changes to live productions. In years gone by, Disney balanced the old and the new much more effectively. They still do, at times; for example Disney Junior – Live on Stage features an ever-changing line-up of characters from favorite shows.
While once in a lifetime visitors experience the Disney's Hollywood Studios shows through fresh eyes, there are many visitors who travel to the Walt Disney Resort yearly (such as the large contingent of Disney Vacation Club members), and would welcome some new live shows. Keeping much-loved attractions is essential: After all, these classic experiences created by Imagineering bind generations of parkgoers. What is more joyous than sharing a favorite Disney experience with our children? New permanent attractions are a welcome addition too. Still, changing up live shows helps keep the balance between old and new.
If you've never seen the five shows presented here, by all means, please do. They are highly entertaining and original shows that can be enjoyed by guests of all ages. However, if you are a frequent guest of the Vacation Kingdom of the World, and would like to see some new live offerings, you are not alone.