What’s a Fantasmic? – 30 Years Ago at Disneyland

1992 turned out to be a banner year for Disney theme park entertainment. As you read in last month’s column, April saw the debut of the Disneyland production of Beauty and the Beast, live on stage, which led directly to the creation of Disney Theatrical Productions. Incredibly enough, while that production was being prepared and opened to an adoring public, another big groundbreaking show was being readied for its big opening. But what, exactly, was this “Fantasmic?”

There had been a certain amount of promotion preceding the start of construction on this ambitious show. Unfortunately, most of the early publicity touted a new nighttime show rather unimaginative identified as “Imagination.” This “high concept” title was used in a few press releases and on a small clutch of souvenir items (t-shirt, anyone?). That this was the bona fide title of the show until fairly late in development explains why the first word in the opening song is “imagination.” In fact, that word is repeated over and over. Significantly, the word “Fantasmic” appears nowhere in any musical number.

An early publicity piece for “Imagination,” coming to Disneyland

Even after the new title, “Fantasmic!” (yes, the exclamation point is officially part of the title) was adopted, the word “imagination” continued to feature prominently in construction signs along the Rivers of America. And what about that construction site? Readers here have seen two entries dealing with the massive scope of the activity, involving the draining of the river, removal of the water stage and Old Mill, and construction of a massive new performance stage, themed to represent a rustic cider mill. (See Oct/Nov. 1991 and March 1992 for these articles.) Guests who were keeping close tabs on the proceedings also noted that the entire river had received a concrete bed, both the Mark Twain and Columbia had been overhauled, and a new boat slip had been built between the Indian Village and Big Thunder Ranch petting zoo area.

Construction fence sign, prominently featuring the word “Imagination”

Most maddening of all was when the river was filled back up with water and the construction walls came down. So complete was the transformation of the bend of the river that it looked like all that effort had been for… not much. On a personal note, what was maddening for me was that I was not able to get photos of these crucial weeks. That spring, on a business trip to New York City, my camera was stolen, and I was unable to replace it until the summer. I would take many, many photos of Fantasmic! over the years, but not for the debut.

This was not the only source of frustration Fantasmic! held for me that spring. As the premiere date crept nearer, Disneyland began playing games with their operating hours. Through the month of April, Disneyland had been staying open until 7pm on weeknights, and until midnight on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For the first week of May, the park switched to “summer hours,” staying open until 9pm on weeknights. But then, for the second week of May (the 11th-14th), Disneyland closed at 6:00. And it was obvious why. As the last reluctant park guests were politely but firmly removed from New Orleans Square and Frontierland, crews could be seen setting the stage and making preparations for “dress rehearsals” of Fantasmic!

We were not supposed to know that at least one dress rehearsal had been made available as a ticketed event for cast members. This was held on Thursday, May 7 after the 9pm closure of the park to the public. Cast members were under strict orders to take no photos and share no information with the public.

One completely unexpected nightmare for Disneyland’s publicists, as well as all residents of the greater Los Angeles area, was the rioting that broke out following the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. April 29 could have been the press debut of Fantasmic! Instead, it was the first of five full days of press coverage of violence, confrontations, and fires. Disneyland hastily withdrew their TV advertising, built around the catch phrase, “Be there when the night ignites!”

At the official premiere of Fantasmic!

The official debut of Fantasmic! was finally held on Wednesday, May 13. Do I have vivid memories of that night? I have the same memory as I have of every other night that week— of being swept out of the park at 6pm. May 13 was a press day at Disneyland, with events held throughout the day. (Fun fact: Goofy’s son Max was officially introduced to the world in front of the train station that day.) After the press had been herded from location to location, they, along with selected invited guests, were the witnesses to the “Dread-ication” of Fantasmic! Presiding over the festivities was Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his co-hostess, Maleficent.

While I was not there that night, I did later acquire a press kit from the event. Prepared in anticipation of an April debut, the front cover featured the phrase, “Be there when the night ignites.” The folder features die-cut covers and a press release carrying the date May 15 (not 13) for the public premiere.

Press kit cover
Press photo notes Fantasmic! arrives at Disneyland in April, 1992
Press release notes premiere date May 15, 1992

And so it was that the public was invited to see what all the fuss was about on Friday, May 15. Like many others, I staked out a location facing the stage that afternoon, and held it for several hours. Was it worth the wait? Yes, yes it was. In fact, I would say it was overwhelming.

Look for my complete review, and discussion of the full impact of Fantasmic! in next month’s column.


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