Fantasmic! - 30 Years Ago at Disneyland

So, That’s a Fantasmic! – 30 Years Ago at Disneyland

Last month, I described the events leading up to the May 15 public debut of Fantasmic!, the new nighttime spectacle that had everyone guessing about what, exactly, it would be. This month I will be describing my reaction, the public reaction, and the long-term impact it had on Disneyland.

On Friday, May 15, I made a point of getting into Disneyland and over to New Orleans Square as early as possible. In those days the internet was still just a glimmer ( officially launched on the World Wide Web in 1996), so fans were still getting information through news reports, fan newsletters, and tip-offs from cast members. 

As noted in last month’s column, I was missing something crucial that evening. My camera had been stolen on a trip to New York City, and so I do not have any of my own photos from that memorable night. I do, however, have another visual record of Fantasmic’s debut. For the first time in many years, Disneyland had prepared and sold a special souvenir booklet devoted to a single attraction. 

Measuring 8.5 X 8.5 inches, this 24-page booklet (with a fold-out front cover) was offered only during the first year, and rather quickly vanished from store shelves as Fantasmic! would later be incorporated into the standard souvenir booklet for the entire park. In the past there had been booklets for the Sleeping Beauty Castle dioramas, it’s a small world, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Today, the park no longer even produces an annual souvenir booklet, let alone semi-permanent keepsakes for specific attractions and special events.

The first few pages of the booklet gave a brief history of the development of Fantasmic!, as well as images of its construction.

This image was used to illustrate the rehearsal process, but sharp-eyed readers will note that this is actually a photo shoot. This is the exact pose and costume for Sorcerer Mickey used in the widely disseminated “hero image” for Fantasmic! publicity. 

But now, rehearsals were over, the press premiere was behind us, and the river was thronged with guests packed into the newly denuded New Orleans Square waterfront. After a series of announcements stating that Fantasmic! was about to begin and that there were no more viewing areas available, a now-familiar high-pitched tone was heard.

I vividly recall the roar that went up the very first time that Mickey “magically” appeared in a blaze of light and smoke on the still fresh new stage. It seemed odd that he was clad in a tuxedo with tails— had not all the publicity shown him in sorcerer’s robes? But when he climbed the stairs and shot a blaze of sparks from his fingertips, we knew that in this show, Mickey would be magical.

Even after thirty years, there are elements of that premiere night I recall vividly. There was the sound design, which included spectral noises that seemed to come from all sides and directly behind us. Lighting was used in unexpected ways, such as when beams of light shot out of Kaa the snake’s eyes, illuminating barges filled with wildly dancing neon-colored monkeys, as well as the crowd along the shoreline.

And then there were those water screens! It was a new technology and Fantasmic! showed it off to great advantage. Animated sequences shimmered, and when lit from the back, subjects on the stage appeared to interact with them.

My personal favorite animated sequence from the first version of Fantasmic! was the rising bubbles during Pinocchio’s undersea adventure, and Jiminy Cricket’s neat skewering of one of those bubbles to retrieve his top hat.

This led to one of the most spectacular set-pieces of the show, Peter Pan battling Captain Hook and his pirates, on the deck, high in the rigging, and swinging above the river on ropes, all while aboard the steadily moving Columbia Sailing Ship. The eleven-foot-tall crocodile that glided behind was an added treat.

As the Columbia sailed out of view, the tone changed, and beautifully lighted barges carrying the beloved Disney princesses came into view. It seems hard to believe today, but at that time there were only five maidens from which to choose the three who appeared, dancing with their respective princes. Disney selected the two newest members of the sorority, Ariel, and Belle, along with the Fairest of Them All, Snow White.

The appearance of the Evil Queen and her ghostly Magic Mirror put an end to all the beauty in this spectacle and introduced us to the “nightmare Fantasmic” that was to follow. The gallery summoned up included the Old Hag, Ursula the Sea Witch, and Chernabog.

Ursula not only appeared on screen but also made an “in-person” appearance in the form of a  twenty-foot tall, thirty-two-foot wide animated float, complete with wickedly glowing eyes. (Please note that the image of Sorcerer Mickey and Ursula was created for the booklet, and does not represent an actual scene in the original Fantasmic!)

Finally came the moment for which we had all been patiently waiting. Maleficent appeared which meant… that the dragon could not be far behind. One odd note, though, was that rather than Sorcerer Mickey, it was Brave Little Tailor Mickey who confronted the wicked fairy.

After zapping Mickey with a well-aimed blast of pyrotechnics, Maleficent began to grow. And grow. And just as it seemed she was about to transform… water screens appeared. And on those screens? All of Mickey’s nightmare nemeses, including that dragon.

I will not deny I felt a sense of disappointment as I watched the sequence unfold. Granted, there had been many spectacular moments. But how could they possibly leave us with projections for something this crucial? Before the disappointment settled, however, the screens dropped, and out of the smoke emerged… Bucky.

For those of us who spent summer nights from 1992 through 2009 along the Rivers of America, Bucky was an affectionate nickname for the grand illusion that was the first Maleficent dragon. You see, she was composed mostly of pipe and drapes, with a pair of wings and a sculpted head that was fairly complete. She was manipulated by a whole retinue of black-clad cast members who tugged at ropes and poles to keep her in constant motion lest the whole illusion collapse.

And why was she named Bucky? Because she had two prominent front teeth. If one closely observed them, they served a very important purpose. As a jet of fuel was sprayed between them, a spark jumped from one to the other, creating a magnificent jet of flame.

And that first night (as well as many others to follow), no one cared that Bucky was mostly an illusion. She was a magnificent, fire-breathing dragon, and she set the whole river aflame.

Fortunately for us (and the river), Mickey made a triumphal return to defeat not only Bucky, er, the dragon, but all of those pesky villains, as well. Oddly enough, it was again Brave Little Tailor Mickey who performed the task, with still no sight of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Following the dragon’s defeat, there was a decrescendo and a series of sparkling musical flourishes. It was Tinker Bell, flitting across the water screens and beckoning us all to a truly grand finale. Bursting into view at the bend of the river was the Mark Twain River Boat, piloted by Steamboat Willie, magically appearing in a burst of shimmering sparkles. And on the decks was an overwhelming assembly of classic Disney characters. That first night, as in many to follow, guests could be heard oohing and ahhing at the sight of so many who were so beloved.

I distinctly recall that the Princesses were given pride of place on the forward deck, with Ariel closest to the bow. And oddly, I have vivid memories of Mary Poppins and the chimney sweeps up on the Texas Deck, right at home among the smoke from the chimneys there. As the steamboat sailed out of sight, it seemed impossible to top it for a satisfying finale.

But top it they did, with the appearance (finally!) of Sorcerer Mickey, high atop the roof of the Cider Mill, surrounded by pyrotechnics, lasers, and smoke. The music swelled, streamers burst in the air, and Mickey played a final magic trick, “vanishing” from his high perch and reappearing on stage to deliver his curtain line, “Some imagination, huh?”

It was a stunning moment for me. As the “exit music” began to play, I looked around and had an odd thought: the area around the Rivers of America looked like the Happiest War Zone on Earth. Drifting smoke, the slight odor of fireworks, and the detritus of a crowd that had waited for hours added to the atmosphere. And the Disneyland cast members found themselves in something of a “war zone” of their own.

On opening night, eager crowds had filled in every available spot along the river, as guests waiting for the night’s second performance crowded into Frontierland and Adventureland. As that exit music was playing, hardly anyone was able to exit. People began to realize that there was a major traffic jam, and there was no way around it. In those days, the waterfront ended at Bear Country.

Following that epic miscalculation, the Disneyland crowd control experts hastily worked out a procedure that was employed for the rest of the 1992 season of Fantasmic! Guests for the first showing were allowed to secure places along the river, and when they were full, all guests waiting for the second showing were directed to Frontierland. Adventureland was left open for exiting, along with a backstage floodgate that opened between the Swiss Family Treehouse and Pirates of the Caribbean. That exit took guests around the outside of the berm and into Town Square.

Other changes were to follow. The biggest was the complete restructuring of the waterfront, with terraces and planters that were aesthetically more pleasing during the day, and created protected corridors for traffic flow during performances.

Over the years, show elements were changed, removed, or added as Disney introduced new films and new characters. Each year we would watch to see whether the latest Princess would get pride of place at the bow of the Mark Twain. (Pocahontas was particularly effective there for her summer, as she gazed resolutely “just around the river bend.”) Mary Poppins and the sweeps were eventually supplanted by the Toy Story gang, who still gather above the paddle wheel to wave a final goodbye as the Mark Twain steams around the corner. Giant Ursula began behaving erratically (but who could tell?) and was eventually replaced with Flotsam and Jetsam. And in 2009 Bucky was retired, to be replaced by Murphy. (Yes, that is really the “new” dragon’s nickname.)

One other magnificent souvenir appeared that first season. The complete soundtrack of Fantasmic! was released on compact disc. The playlist included the exit music as well as that season’s soundtrack of the venerable Main Street Electrical Parade.

While I dearly love Fantasmic! and have some very special memories of it, I do have one great regret connected to this Disneyland classic. As eager as I was for this show to open, I could not realize at the time what would be forever lost. Before Mickey, Maleficent, and Bucky arrived, summer night excitement at Disneyland was mostly centered along the parade route, and high above the skies of Sleeping Beauty Castle, where the fireworks were performed from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. The riverfront along New Orleans Square was a more peaceful spot. Late-night diners could be heard murmuring over their tables, and if one listened closely, you might hear the distant strains of the Swisskapolka playing from the Tree House. The river gleamed in reflected light, broken only by the occasional passing of the Mark Twain on a moonlit trip around Tom Sawyer Island. The Haunted Mansion took on a sinister beauty by the light of the moon, especially when the clouds were playing hide and seek with that light. In my memories, I sometimes return to those peaceful evenings. But as much as I miss them, I would not trade them for the magic, the wonder, and the joy that is Fantasmic!


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