There was an outpouring of emotion as people witnessed the recent fiery demise of the massive Maleficent-inspired dragon that is the most memorable aspect of Disneyland’s Fantasmic! The spectacular nighttime water show has performed thousands of times since its debut in May of 1992. For many, Fantasmic! is as iconic as Main Street, the Matterhorn, and Sleeping Beauty Castle. In reality, Fantasmic! is not nearly as venerable as these, though it does have its own somewhat checkered history.
Starting in the late 1970s, the folks in charge of Disneyland’s entertainment started toying with concepts for a nighttime water show. Offerings at Disney’s Florida parks showcased tantalizing possibilities, which never quite seemed to come together in just the right way. One concept would have seen Tom Sawyer Island hosting “River Haunt,” a spooky nighttime entertainment utilizing characters from the Haunted Mansion and classic horror stories.
When the staging and infrastructure proved too complex at the time, another possibility was explored. Fantasia Live would have seen guests enjoying excerpts from Disney’s tribute to classical music and classic animation, projected on giant screens rising out of the river.
It was when then new Disney CEO Michael Eisner turned his attention to the matter that things began to come together. Charged with the creation of a show befitting the crown jewel of the company’s theme parks, Disneyland, the team brought together an entirely new story line, supported by beloved Disney characters and music, new musical themes, a whole bagful of theatrical tricks, and a breathtaking new water screen technology. This show, destined to set a new standard for themed entertainment, was christened… “Imagination.”
This, of course, changed. By the time the show debuted to the public in May of 1992, it carried the memorable (and licensable) name “Fantasmic!” It was the second year of “The Disney Decade,” and nothing could mar the triumphant premiere. Set for April 29, 1992, media and selected guests were invited to “Be There When the Night Ignites.” The massive advertising campaign placed heavy emphasis on the fire breathing dragon who seemingly engulfed the whole river in a massive, flaming conflagration.
Unfortunately, the real world intruded on the fantasy world of Fantasmic! Social unrest and rioting following the verdict of the Rodney King trial sent portions of Los Angeles up in flames on the afternoon of April 29. Disney canceled their glittering premiere and pulled the advertising campaign. On May 15 Fantasmic! made it’s belated debut.
While the show was an instant classic, there were some elements that did not quite live up to the expectations created by the advertising campaign. Some things were missing entirely (for example, a projected Monstro bearing down on a speeding raft carrying Gepetto and his beloved pets).
The viewing was also problematic the first year, as crowds filled the entire west side of Disneyland as dusk approached, and foot traffic came to a standstill, particularly between the two nightly showings. And then there was… the dragon.
It was big. It did breathe fire. It did engulf the river in flames (although not as thoroughly as publicity had promised). But there was no denying it was… kind of a creation of smoke and mirrors. At least, a magic mirror. You see, the original Maleficent was a fairly complete, fully sculpted dragon’s head, placed on a pipe construction with wings that were manipulated by live stage hands. Lots of fabric (fireproof, we assume), smoke and fog obscured much of what was going on, and as soon as most people realized there wasn’t really a dragon there, the water screens sprang back up as the whole thing was slowly lowered back into its subterranean chamber.
This dragon gained the nickname “Bucky,” because the two prominent tubes in its mouth that supplied the propellent for the flames resembled buck teeth. It was THE dragon seen in every single performance of Fantasmic! through the summer of 2009. Well, almost every performance. Well… most performances, anyway. Even the relatively simple mechanism that brought Bucky to life had its problems. So, on some nights, there was a substitution consisting of giant Maleficent writhing and screaming, with a quicker reappearance of the water screens.
Another major show element also proved to be temperamental. Ursula, the Sea Witch from Disney’s relatively new The Little Mermaid was represented by a massive, inflatable float that glided through her scene, waving her arms and winking her heavily lidded eyes. Because she was an inflatable, the repeated shows began taking their toll on her, and some nights she definitely slumped. Some nights she did not appear at all. And at some point in late 1997 she made her final appearance on the Rivers of America.
Much had changed at Disneyland by this time. The original generation of creative artists, cast members and management that had largely run the show since Walt’s time were no longer in charge. A new President, Paul Pressler had been installed in late 1994. With a background in consumer products, he believed that Disneyland should emphasize shops and dining (which “made money”), as opposed to rides and shows (which “cost money”). Indeed, when Fantasmic! passed its fifth year in operation, the original plan had been to refresh the show, possibly add new scenes, and enhance the technology. Under Pressler, the only assessment was that of crowd size, which had remained consistent for the durable, if aging, production. Besides, all resources at Disneyland were now being turned toward the creation of the Disneyland Resort. Within a month of the unceremonious removal of Ursula, ground was broken for Disney’s California Adventure.
The next few years saw more change, but not for Fantasmic! Paul Pressler departed Disneyland to become the President of Walt Disney Attractions. His hand picked successor, Cynthia Harriss became the President of Disneyland. In February, 2001 Disney’s California Adventure opened, to almost universal derision for its paucity of attractions and baffling roster of entertainment offerings. (There was, however, a stunning array of shops and restaurants!) By September of 2002 Paul Pressler departed the Walt Disney Company, followed by Cynthia Harriss in October of 2003. Years of deferred maintenance had taken a toll on Disneyland Park, which was approaching its 50th anniversary in 2005.
Through it all, Fantasmic! and its now iconic dragon had continued to entertain legions of nighttime visitors. For the park’s 50th anniversary celebration, the show was polished up and presented as a Disneyland classic (though it was only 13 years old at the time). In June, 2006 the river hosted the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, as it had for the first film in June, 2003. At the end of the Summer, 2006 season, Tom Sawyer Island was closed, as preparations were made to bring pirates to the island on a permanent basis.
The refurbishment took a year and a half, with “Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island” debuting in May, 2007. During that long hiatus, persistent rumors roiled the Disney fan community, centered around the demise of Fantasmic! There had been no announcements of opening dates for the show, and in the absence of information, speculation, spread by internet fan sites, were only quelled when Fantasmic! reopened that June.
Two years later, Disney further confirmed a commitment to Fantasmic! with the announcement that 2009 would be a “Summer Nightastic” at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Lending excitement was the promise that Fantasmic! would receive its first major upgrade since the show had debuted 17 years earlier. Fans went wild when it was revealed that “Bucky” was to be retired, and a magnificent, fully fleshed out Maleficent dragon would make its debut for the summer promotion.
As the opening date approached, Disneyland began hedging on their announcements of the exact date the new show would premiere. When the show finally did debut, the new dragon… did not. As the summer wore on, people began speculating on what was holding it up. Rumors ran rampant about technical problems, outside vendors, and disastrous rehearsals during the park’s off-hours. It was during this time that the new dragon acquired its own nickname, Murphy. As in Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will. And that was the case, as the entire Summer Nightastic promotion passed before the new dragon finally debuted in September.
But it was worth the wait.
The new Maleficent dragon was basically what everyone had hoped it would be. Fans with long memories recognized the design from early promotional material, nearly two decades earlier. In addition to the enhanced dragon, there were also two new full sized characters added to the show. Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s slithery sea eels filled the gap left by the departure of the Sea Witch herself some 12 years before. Meanwhile, across the esplanade, Disney California Adventure was closing off vast swathes of its public areas, as it began a multi-year remodeling effort to completely remake portions of that park.
This should be the happily ever after ending of the story. But that happens only in fairy tales, and the movies. The next major hiccup for Fantasmic! took place just a year later. During a routine August performance, the dragon suddenly began leaning forward, and collapsed face first onto the stage. No performers were harmed, and the show was halted. Whatever had happened, repairs were made, procedures were amended, and Fantasmic! resumed its full schedule.
The next few years passed without major incident (aside from the quiet removal of Flotsam and Jetsam), and the idea that there was anything particularly new or unique about Fantasmic! and its dragon faded from people’s minds. At the end of the 2016 holiday season there were few who were aware that there would be no dragon sightings for the next year and a half. Preparation had begun for a major expansion of the park, and the whole north end of the Rivers of America was drained. With temporary dams holding the water in place at the south end, the island was closed and watercraft were grounded. This was the situation through July 17, 2017.
During this year and a half hiatus, Fantasmic! finally received the refreshing that had been proposed for its fifth year (1997), along with new show elements and enhanced technology. New projectors were added, digital mapping brought more characters to the show, and new mist and fog effects showed it off to best advantage. Aladdin and Jasmine joined the show, along with their magic carpet. Rapunzel replaced Snow White among the Princesses. And most controversially (for the purists, at least), Peter Pan and Captain Hook were evicted from the Columbia sailing ship in favor of Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean.
This is the show that was running until March, 2020, when Disneyland, and the rest of the state of California, were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early speculation was that this would last a matter of weeks, surely no more than a month at the most. But over a year passed before Disneyland reopened its gates in April, 2021. Fantasmic! made its triumphal return in May of 2022.
More recently there was a puzzling cancellation of the show for a few weeks in late January and early February, although construction in Adventureland seemed the obvious culprit. Which brings us to Saturday, April 22. During the second performance of the night, Murphy unexpectedly caught fire, and was completely consumed in flame, in front of a packed audience. No one was hurt, and the park was able to open on time and with only minor inconvenience the next day. Fantasmic! will return without the dragon on May 5 (according to the current schedule).
If you have read this far, one thing should be clear: Fantasmic! and its dragon have been through a lot of ups and downs. Guests have been thrilled… guests have been disappointed… and guests have been there “when the night ignites.” Fans have speculated and made predictions and have been second guessed on a fairly regular basis. And there has been loss. But with loss comes change. And with change comes something new. I could guess what is in store for Fantasmic! I am sure you could, too. And over the next several months, we will be talking about it, and guessing about it, and looking forward to it. Of one thing, though, I am certain: Long live Fantasmic!