My Disney Top 5 - Things I'll Miss About IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth

by Chris Barry, contributing writer
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In all the years of writing here on MousePlanet, going back about 11 years, I've never actually written an article while I'm in Walt Disney World, until now that is. Right now, I'm sitting in my room in the Alligator Bayou section of Disney's Port Orleans Riverside resort tapping away at the laptop. It's late. Stacy Aswad is on the television in an endless loop - it's the only thing allowed on TV while we're down here. My boys are asleep in their beds, conked out after another amazing but exhausting marathon day in the parks. We started off the day at Animal Kingdom on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Six hours later, we were headed out of Pandora. We took an afternoon break to swim at the Alligator Bayou quiet pool, and then headed over to Epcot's World Showcase for some delectable delights from the Food and Wine Festival. Our day ended, like every Disney day should, by watching the glorious IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. The big difference was, this time, it was the last ever presentation of IllumiNations.

Now, I didn't plan to be down here for this momentous event. My indefatigable wife ran the Berlin Marathon this past weekend. I realized back when she signed up that she'd be gone for about a week, right around the time the boys and I would be off from school for a four-day weekend courtesy of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. A trip to Germany wasn't feasible for all of us, so the obvious thing to do was to book a long weekend at Walt Disney World for me and my twin teenage boys. They happily obliged and we began the process of planning yet another Disney vacation. As fate would have it, the final IllumiNations was scheduled for this past Monday, September 30. I would coincidentally be there and be able to give it a proper goodbye.

The Epcot nighttime spectacular first ran on October 1, 1999 as part of Walt Disney World's celebration of the new millennium. Then named IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth, the award winning show dazzled guests with music, fireworks, lasers, water fountains, lighting, flames, torches and, of course, the spinning, floating Earth globe. It was such a big hit that when the millennium celebration concluded, the show was kept in place and closed one day shy of it's 20 birthday.

Those of us who have been making Walt Disney World visits a significant part of our lives and, for that matter, even those who don't, have all been blown away by IllumiNations. It made an impact on us all. The show represented the spirit of Epcot. It was innovative. It was emotionally charged. It was sentimental. It was, for many of us, this writer included, the pinnacle of all that we love about Walt Disney World. In short, IlluminNations was one of those life affirming things and it was, quite possibly, in my humble opinion, one of the best 14 minutes of entertainment that Disney has ever produced. Why exactly? Let's take a closer look with my Top 5 Things I'll miss about IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.

5 – The Pre-show Music

Something that was unique about IllumiNations was that it had its own pre-show music. World Showcase always has music playing as you stroll through the countries, but that all changed when the torches were lit and you would begin to hear the same music no matter where you went around the lagoon. If you were a regular visitor, you knew what that meant and it really did build up the anticipation to the big show.


As the sun sets, the music begins to change and the entire lagoon begins to become one. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

The atmosphere in World Showcase is pretty hard to top, but this music unified all the nations, which was, of course, the whole point of the show; hearing it used to get me very excited that IllumiNations was beginning soon.

4 – We Go On

Only Disney could write a great song specifically for a fireworks show, one that actually sticks in your head and is something you want to hear and never get sick of. The lyrics to "We Go On" were written by Don Dorsey, producer and director of IllumiNations, and the musical accompaniment was composed by Gavin Greenway.


IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. Photo by Steve Russo.

To me, it always walked the fine line between poignancy and over-sentimentality just perfectly. It wasn't cheesy. It's a beautiful piece of music that, I'm sure, has had an emotional impact on thousands of guests over the years and I'm certainly one of them.

3 – Earth Globe

As my sons and I meandered around World Showcase on our way back to Future World, we made sure to take our time. That has always been the golden IllumiNations rule: let the hordes leave and enjoy the calm and serenity a mostly empty World Showcase offers you at the end of the night. We saw the famed Earth Globe, IllumiNations' centerpiece, begin its final journey back to the shores of the lagoon and people were literally waving to it and saying, "Thank you!"


The iconic IllumiNations Earth Globe has long made its home along the shores of World Showcase. Photo by Mark Goldhaber

You have to love any inanimate object that causes people to treat it like an old friend. And what an object, the three-story tall globe is covered with 15,000 LED lights and was the world's first spherical video display system. It was a wonder of technology for its time. Actually, 20 years later, as was witnessed the other night, it's still a pretty impressive thing.

2 – The Fireworks

As anyone who's been there can tell you, a Disney fireworks show isn't like any other you'll find anywhere. It's never just about a big explosion and lots of color. It's more fine-tuned than that. It's hard to use the word subtle when discussing fireworks but, there are sublime moments in IllumiNations right alongside the big bombastic ones.


The finale of Epcot's Illuminations: Reflections of Earth lights up the promenade all around World Showcase Lagoon. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

Wishes always had and always will have a special place in my heart, but IllumiNations truly took you on an emotional roller coaster, expertly timed to the music, flames, lasers and spotlights. Your senses went wild and your emotions ran high. And remember, it's a fireworks show. Emotional storytelling doesn't typically find its way into a fireworks show, but that, as they say, is the Disney difference.

1 – The Torches

"We're gathered here tonight, around the fire—as people of all lands have gathered for thousands and thousands of years before us—to share the light and to share a story."

As I mentioned before, the message of World Showcase and IllumiNations has always gelled perfectly. Something that drove that message home was the use of the torches around the lagoon. There are 19 torches around the lagoon signifying the 19 centuries completed during the last millennia. The 20th torch was in the center of the aforementioned Earth Globe.


A nearly full moon hangs in the sky above one of Epcot's World Showcase Lagoon torches which are lit for nearly thirty minutes prior to the nightly presentation of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

When they were all lit together, our unification is complete. When the torches are lit before the show; when they are "blown out" by that single breath; when they slowly turn back on again during the peak moments of the show; the intense heat they give off; these are all moments that will always be etched into my brain. My biggest hope is that they leave the torches around the lagoon and keep them lit for future shows. They deserve a permanent place in World Showcase.

The first time I saw IllumiNations, I was hooked. I couldn't believe how good it was, and how different it was. Ever since then, it's been a must do on every trip, frequently more than once. I watched it from a few different spots but Germany was the most consistent. My wife is first generation German American and was raised in a German centric household for sure. That always put us shopping in the German pavilion and then out to the water's edge to watch the show. For the final IllumiNations, I knew exactly where I'd be, especially with Diane actually in Bavaria at the time.

When we got to Epcot, you could tell right away that the place was packed. It seemed like everyone had come out to say farewell. We made our way around the lagoon to hit a few food booths and after settling in Morocco for a while to eat dinner, it was time to make it back to Germany. Guests had been staking out their spots for hours but we found some room. There were lots of Farewell IllumiNations shirts; lots of them put out by Disney but just as many were homemade. I bought myself a farewell ball cap. The energy was palpable. People were celebrating. The fact that Food and Wine was going on at the same time certainly fueled the atmosphere if you know what I mean.

The show began and so did the applause. Every peak moment drew a new round of cheers but for the most part, the crowd was fairly quiet. People wanted to listen and soak it all in one last time. My sons and I watched, clapped and cheered along with the crowd of like-minded fans. When the show came to a close to a thunderous ovation, the typical horde made their way to the exit. I typically hang around for quite some time, enjoying World Showcase with less people while everyone else makes for the busses and monorail. This time though, lots of fans stayed behind. Some of us thought there would be a new voiceover and something projected on Spaceship Earth paying tribute to the show and it's legendary 20 year run. But to no avail, and I thought that was just fine. I'd rather remember it just the way it was.

It was a wonderful night to be there as IllumiNations took its final bow. The faithful turned out in droves. There was lots of happiness in the air.. There were some tears, mine included. Think about that for a moment. People shed tears for a fireworks show? Is that even possible? In that respect, IllumiNations transcended the usual fireworks show. The emotions were real. It meant something to a lot of people. Yeah it was a fun fireworks show for sure. If that's your thing, it was impossible to be disappointed. But, if you scratched just below the surface, there was a whole lot more going on there besides pyrotechnics.

My plans were to see IllumiNations' successor, Epcot Forever, the following night, but we had tickets for Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, so our night in Epcot came to a close as it always did: a slow walk around World Showcase, a pit stop in MouseGear, the greatest Walt Disney World gift shop, and then out to the busses with a new cache of memories courtesy of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. It was yet another perfect ending to yet another day at Walt Disney World.

That's all for this Top 5. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below let me hear your favorite IllumiNations stories, or your thoughts on the show coming to a close and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.

 

Comments

  1. By danyoung

    An excellent remembrance! I'm sorry I missed you while I was there. I saw the show on the 29th, heard stories of huge crowds expected for the following night, and decided to crash early on the 30th. I was also there on the 1st for the debut of Epcot Forever, and as much as I'll miss IllumiNations I really enjoyed the new show!

  2. By Alain

    Completely Agree with you. So sad to see such a classic go. But I would add two items to your list:

    The incredible soundtrack by Gavin Greenaway. It is, in my opinion the earth of this show.

    The tapestry of nation parade soundtrack that is broadcasted everywhere after the show. (with the synchronise extinction of the torch at the end of the music)

    Alain

  3. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    An excellent remembrance! I'm sorry I missed you while I was there. I saw the show on the 29th, heard stories of huge crowds expected for the following night, and decided to crash early on the 30th. I was also there on the 1st for the debut of Epcot Forever, and as much as I'll miss IllumiNations I really enjoyed the new show!

    Hey Dan,

    Sunday night we were in Epcot actually. We just decided to hit attractions while the crowds were watching the show because we knew we were planning on catching the final night. Would have been good to meet.

    Did you get a chance to go inside the Odyssey?

  4. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Alain View Post
    Completely Agree with you. So sad to see such a classic go. But I would add two items to your list:

    The incredible soundtrack by Gavin Greenaway. It is, in my opinion the earth of this show.

    The tapestry of nation parade soundtrack that is broadcasted everywhere after the show. (with the synchronise extinction of the torch at the end of the music)

    Alain

    All of the music is really incredible isn't it? From the pre-show all the way through to afterwards.

  5. By danyoung

    Quote Originally Posted by cbarry View Post
    Did you get a chance to go inside the Odyssey?

    Nope. What was in there?

  6. By Dave1313

    Great Top 5! While I have to admit that being a newer WDW guest (only since 2012), I don't quite have the connection to Epcot historical connections like the Tapestry of Nations (since I've only read about it), but I still always enjoyed the show.

    Sorry we missed touching base, I had sent you and Dan PMs (after your suggestion of meeting up in the Jungle Cruise Top 5 thread), but I didn't do it until the last minute(my bad!).

    Re: the torches, I was happy to see them re-used (less the Globe one of course) for Epcot Forever. It would be nice if they survive for HarmonioUS.

    I noticed a crane visible in the backstage area not too far from the canal where they parked the globe and barges during prep. I wonder if that is to help build something for Harmonious? If so, it must be BIG! I guess it's more likely that maybe they are doing something to get back some off stage storage or other infrastructure they are losing with some of the other changes around the park.

    I thought the Odyssey display was pretty neat! With the effort it must have taken to set that up, hopefully it's around for a while. I'd like to take another look in the spring. The model of all the park updates was nice to see.

  7. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    Nope. What was in there?

    The Odyssey has a nice preview center for the re-imagining of Epcot. There's a small theater in the round with a model of the park in the center, and then screens all around you. There's narration that lasts about 15 minutes highlighting all of the changes to come. It's beautifully done.

    Also, in the hall outside the theater, there are attraction posters for just about everything you'd want to see, current, upcoming and - the best part - past. It's great to see posters for Horizons and Maelstrom side by side with the rest. There are also PhotoPass photo-ops that put you into a set of sorts. I don't know what the magic outcomes of those are yet, but it looks like they're doing something cool with the photos.

    A nice job and it gets you very enthused for the changes to come.

  8. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    Great Top 5! While I have to admit that being a newer WDW guest (only since 2012), I don't quite have the connection to Epcot historical connections like the Tapestry of Nations (since I've only read about it), but I still always enjoyed the show.

    Sorry we missed touching base, I had sent you and Dan PMs (after your suggestion of meeting up in the Jungle Cruise Top 5 thread), but I didn't do it until the last minute(my bad!).

    Re: the torches, I was happy to see them re-used (less the Globe one of course) for Epcot Forever. It would be nice if they survive for HarmonioUS.

    I noticed a crane visible in the backstage area not too far from the canal where they parked the globe and barges during prep. I wonder if that is to help build something for Harmonious? If so, it must be BIG! I guess it's more likely that maybe they are doing something to get back some off stage storage or other infrastructure they are losing with some of the other changes around the park.

    I thought the Odyssey display was pretty neat! With the effort it must have taken to set that up, hopefully it's around for a while. I'd like to take another look in the spring. The model of all the park updates was nice to see.

    Hey Dave,

    You've had 7 years to fall in love with Epcot. That's more than enough time.

    Thrilled to hear the torches are still being used.

    I'm just as guilty for not checking my PM's so no apologizing. Yes, it would have been cool to meet.

  9. By DisneyGator

    The new show, while good, can't touch the amazing finale of Illuminations. The first time I saw, I couldn't believe my eyes. And everytime I see it, it feels the same.

    And definitely feel the same about the pre-music. Man, it just set the right international mood for the evening. Just the best!!!

  10. By cstephens

    There isn't one aspect that I can point to specifically that I'll miss. It's all pretty much a coherent whole - the fireworks, the music, the globe, the torches, all of it. We saw it for the first time in late November 1999, and we were immediately hooked. We went in search of the soundtrack, which was quite scarce at that point, and luckily found one at the Tower Records that was then at Downtown Disney.

    We've seen it a number of times on subsequent visits, and our norm has been to go to Epcot on our arrival day, usually late afternoon, get something to eat and watch Illuminations. I can't remember which visit it was when I realized they were playing Tapestry of Dreams as the out music. I only saw that parade once, but I was absolutely mesmerized From then on, the show didn't end for us until the last strains of that ended. I was glad that in Epcot Forever, that music figures prominently in one section.

    We were there on September 30, and there were a lot of tears, but none more than when the Tapestry music ended and the torches were extinguished for the last time, as part of Illuminations anyway.

    Which is part of the reason I really disliked the farewell merchandise depicting Mickey putting out a torch, all the while with a big grin on his face. I actually thought it was an incredibly disrespectful graphic to use on the farewell merchandise. I did like one design that included the globe opened to show the torch inside, but of course, it was only on a kids t-shirt. Grrrrrrr.

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