The Vacation Kingdom of the World: The Big Blue World and The Circle of Lifeby Tom Richards, contributing writer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.