The Vacation Kingdom of the World: The Big Blue World and The Circle of Life

by Tom Richards, contributing writer
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In a theme park dedicated to animals it might surprise guests to find two Broadway-caliber live stage shows, but that is just what's in store for adventurers who visit Disney's Animal Kingdom. So "Jambo" and "Welcome" as we visit the park's two shows based on classic animated films.

Finding Nemo: The Musical

Finding Nemo: The Musical plays several times daily at the Theater in the Wild located incongruently inside DinoLand U.S.A. It's hard to miss this large building, but as the vegetation continues to bloom and grow, the theater has begun to blend in with its surroundings quite nicely. The large, tiered, 1500 seat theater offers ample seating in a comfortably air-conditioned venue. Be prepared to arrive at least 30 minutes prior to show time, but don't be put off by long lines; it's a huge venue. We prefer the upper seats as they provide a panoramic view of the proceedings as well as great views of the characters who walk up, down, and around the many levels of walkways throughout the theater.

If you've seen Voyage of the Little Mermaid at Disney's Hollywood Studios, you have an idea of what to expect with Finding Nemo: The Musical. In many ways, though, Nemo is far more ambitious and innovative in scope and design. The show is performed by live actors operating a variety of puppets, some large, some small. The performers spin, float, dance and interact in imaginative ways.


Anchor, Bruce, and Chum sing that "Fish Are Friends, Not Food". Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

After the sad prologue wherein Marlin loses his wife and all his babies except for Nemo, the show begins with the musical number "In the Big Blue World." Nemo and his friends head off for their first day of school, where Nemo gets lost and the search begins. Several other songs—"Dory's Ditty;" "Fish Are Friends, Not Food;" and "Where's My Dad?"—tell the story of Nemo's separation from his father and Marlin's meeting with Dory. Musical numbers continue to tell the familiar story of Nemo's adventures with "The Tank Gang" as he attempts to escape from the dentist's office in Sydney.


Nemo meets the Tank Gang at Dr. Sherman's office. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

We follow Dory and Marlin's quest for Nemo, including Dory's advice to "Just Keep Swimming." A highlight of their story is an encounter with Crush, the turtle, who sings the show's best song, "Go With the Flow," inspired by the beach songs of the 1960s. "Gossip," an elaborate number during which the undersea inhabitants relay the story that there's a little clown fish fighting sharks, braving jellyfish, and befriending an adventurous turtle takes place throughout the theater's many levels. The show ends with a joyful reunion between Marlin and Nemo and a rousing rendition of "In the Big Blue World" by the entire cast.

The puppetry, costumes, and sheer creativity of the entire production make this show a real standout among Disney live stage shows. The action takes place all around the theater, immersing guests in Nemo's undersea world. The dances and acting are also incredible, and it is easy to lose oneself in the story, forgeting that actors are portraying these lovable characters.

However the score is disappointing; other than "Go With the Flow," the lyrics and tunes are pedestrian and forgettable. While the pacing and the plot are successful, the storyline feels like a "book report" rather than a new interpretation of a favorite story. Still, this show comes highly recommended for Nemo fans of all ages.

The Festival of the Lion King

Harambe is the most atmospheric section of Disney's Animal Kingdom, and it is now the home of one of the best live shows on property. Originally conceived as a temporary "filler" in the barren Camp Minnie-Mickey area of Disney's Animal Kingdom, this show quickly built a loyal following. This popularity lead to the construction of a new enclosed (and thankfully air-conditioned) theater at the same location. With the impending arrival of an Avatar-themed area, however, the demolition of this theater necessitated the construction of an entirely new venue in the Africa section of the park. And what a glorious new theater it is.


The new theater building is marked by a colorful quilt bearing a lion's head. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It now feels as if Simba and friends have finally returned home. The theater, and in fact the entire new area build in Harambe, looks as if it has always been there. Like all of Animal Kingdom, with the notable exception of DinoLand U.S.A., the attention to authentic detail here is startling. In this area of the park, it is entirely possible to suspend one's disbelief and pretend to be in Africa.

The Festival of the Lion King is a wonderful show that sounds odd on paper, but in execution works on so many levels. It combines left-over Disneyland parade floats from 1994, acrobatics, ballet, live singing, dancing, audience participation, fire handling, and the wonderful score from the Academy Award winning film The Lion King; And unlike Finding Nemo: The Musical it is not a book-report retelling of the film's story. Instead, this show takes an original approach to its material, combing story elements and music from the film with an entirely new plotline to create a truly unique experience.

The new theater, with its stunning exterior and shaded queue, sets the stage for the show. Inside, guests enter a theater in the round where seating is still bleacher-style like in the former space; this approach does offer the benefit of excellent views from all seats. Before the show begins, the audience learns that each section is named form one animal and will be called on time and again to roar, screech, yell, or howl when cued.

The production begins with the stirring "Circle of Life" performed by the many talented singers in the show. Actors, dressed in elaborate traditional African costumes, perform the song as huge floats with Audio-Animatronic characters including Simba and Pumba accompanied by huge giraffes, elephants, and other African animals fill the four corners of the theater. The lively "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" is next, followed by Pumbaa and Timon's "Hakuna Matata." These numbers are performed by actors, dancers, costumed characters, and the Audio-Animatronic characters atop the floats. The action and the music literally surround viewers.


This Lion King float from Disneyland's former Parade of Dreams is now used in the Animal Kingdom show. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

An extended number follows, featuring the Tumble Monkeys. These gymnasts in colorful monkey costumes are incredible, and their physical feats never cease to amaze. The fun music, "Sing, Sing, Sing," "Playmates," "Snake Charmer," "Hakuna Matata," and "Yes! We Have no Bananas," is also high energy and simply fun. Tumble Monkeys tumble, jump, dance, fly, bounce, and generally cause a lot of good-natured havoc.

The sobering "Be Prepared" is next, performed with gusto by one of the actors playing the role of Scar, and accompanied by flames, smokes, explosions, and a fire-dancer. Things take a much more romantic turn as "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" takes center stage. Two dancers perform a gymnastic ballet in the center of the theater, one twirling and flying above the stage in graceful harmony with the music.

Following the aerialists, there is a reprise of "The Circle of Life" when costumed dancers dressed to represent animals from Africa interact with volunteers from the audience, usually children, who dance and sing along. A fun and fanciful rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"—accompanied by audience members in their roles as animal noise-makers—provides a rousing conclusion as the entire cast assembles for the grand finale.


The performers pose atop one of the float elements that transforms throughout the show. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

It is difficult to capture the energy and originality of this show with words alone. Despite the fact that The Lion King has been around for over twenty years, its characters and music are just as engaging today as when they premiered in 1994. This show, an original take on the now familiar story, is fresh and entertaining in ways that similar live shows such as Animal Kingdom's own Finding Nemo: The Musical and Disney's Hollywood Studios' The Voyage of the Little Mermaid cannot match. The Festival of the Lion King refuses to simply retell the story of Simba and Nala; instead, it expands upon the story and opens it up in a celebratory and memorable way.

 

Comments

  1. By davidgra

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks the Finding Nemo musical is pretty terrible as a musical. It's a great story, but it was never intended to be a musical, and it really doesn't work as one. The songs do nothing to help tell the story; they're just small groups of words repeating endlessly. More like Sesame Street than Broadway. I guess that's good for the really little kids in the audience, but it makes for a really boring experience for adults.

  2. By carolinakid

    We love Festival of the Lion King and could watch it every visit. We've seen Nemo once and that was quite enough! The "songs" sucked but actually it was so loud in there that we couldn't really understand what they were singing. The tunes were unmemorable unlike the score of The Lion King.

  3. By arnoldvb

    Great summaries of the two live shows at Animal Kingdom. I absolutely agree about Festival of the Lion King being a wonderful show and, perhaps my favorite stage show at WDW, but I have to disagree on your negative reaction to Finding Nemo. Although I concede that the music pales in comparison to the Lion King's, my family and I (wife, daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter) love Finding Nemo and look forward to seeing it at least every other visit. Both shows are entertaining and bring the stories to life with excellent casts who put their full energies into telling the stories.

  4. By Dave1313

    I'm not quite at the "terrible" marker for Nemo, but I definitely think I like Lion King more.

    I've seen Nemo only once, and I was way in the back (IIRC, I was in a section of bleachers close to the rear wall), so I think I might have enjoyed it a little more closer to the middle of the theater. It was my own fault for showing up close to the time of show, I think (probably due to trying to sneak it in either before a FP+ window or my departure from the park to go to the airport). I will probably try to see the show again someday.

    I've seen Lion King 2 times(maybe a 3rd?), experiencing it in each location. The high energy for much of the performance (as well as the great re-purposed DL parade floats) stand out as exceptional memories of this show.

    They are definitely different experiences.

  5. By danyoung

    I've never warmed to the Lion King show. It has some memorable moments (the tumble monkeys, the lovely aerialist). But that lame finale with the tired old audience response section has always left me cold. But over several viewings I've really come to love Finding Nemo, and find nothing lame about the songs. In fact Where's My Dad always brings a tear!

  6. By DisneyGator

    Gonna have to agree with DanYoung on the Lion King. I've seen it 3 times from my 7 trips to WDW, and it's never grabbed a hold of me or my family. In fact, my son has never even liked it at all. And my wife says she could skip it, but we do it when we want to sit for a while after walking all those trails.

    As for Nemo, this show is awesome! My family never misses this on our trips. We were able to catch it in Dec2006 when they were just starting to preview the show. I was shocked when we came down the path and someone said come on in and check out the show! We love the music, the songs are catchy (Big Blue World will now be going through my head all day!), the puppets are fun, the extra comedy is a crack up, and my kids have always loved watching Nemo swim through the bubbles before the show starts. This show is far and away the best. We never miss it on a WDW trip.

  7. By danyoung

    Quote Originally Posted by DisneyGator View Post
    Gonna have to agree with DanYoung . . .

    Painful, ain't it?

  8. By GusMan

    While I have seen Lion King a few times, once this past March in the new theater, Ive only seen Nemo once. Mainly because my son didnt want to see it again.
    I really liked Nemo, and I would like to see it again, to be honest, since its been so long since I have. At the same time, I keep thinking that Tarzan Rocks was much better of a show in that location, to be really honest. I dont think I will change my mind on that any time soon.

    Lion King is filled some some great performers and I've always been a fan. I dont see it every time we go, but every few years, I pop in to enjoy the show.

  9. By danyoung

    Quote Originally Posted by GusMan View Post
    At the same time, I keep thinking that Tarzan Rocks was much better of a show in that location, to be really honest.

    You preach it, brother, and I'll turn the pages!!!

  10. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    You preach it, brother, and I'll turn the pages!!!

    Thanks Dan!
    Granted, I know that Nemo probably caters to the younger crowd while Tarzan Rocks catered to a slightly older crowd. I sometimes think that it is that tween-teen group that Disney misses at times. I mean, the stunts were cool - and real. The soundtrack was awesome. It was nothing short of an exciting rock concert.

  11. By danyoung

    The only problem with it was the same problem I have with the Lion King show - that dumb section where Terk comes out and breaks the audience into sections for a little audience participation! Other than that, I LOVED that show, especially the aerial section!

  12. By *Nala*

    I love both shows. Animal Kingdom is a must-do even for short trips and we almost always see them both. Love the music and the immersive atmosphere and the live performers. On our next trip I'm really hoping to get seats at FOTLK where our cubs are likely to be chosen for the little "parade" at the end.

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