LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — What's the perfect way to wrap up a day in a theme park? A rousing fireworks display? A flashy parade, featuring every IP in the park? Or maybe after a day in which you've overloaded every sense in your body, you just want to sit down and be awed by something beautiful.
If that's what you crave at the end of the day, then Rivers of Light at Disney's Animal Kingdom is the show for you.
A 15-minute musical presentation, on the Discovery River, that features mystic shamans, water projections, dancing fountains, giant floating "lanterns," and a tower of fire at the end, Rivers of Light offers viewers far more than the sum of these parts. It's the energy of Rivers of Light that distinguishes this performance from Disney's many other night-time spectaculars around the world. While those other shows draw upon Disney's deep reservoir of IP to power their narratives, Rivers of Light aims for something more simple yet far more profound — a single focus on the power of nature.
That focus lends the show gravitas, but that carries risk — that the seriousness of the focus will weigh down the narrative, leaving it ponderous instead of inspiring. No one wants a lecture at the end of the day. But Rivers of Light deflects this risk with non-stop movement: illuminated animals that float across the water, projections that animate the river, and fountains that soar toward the heavens. To use a cliche from my journalism school days, Rivers of Light shows, not tells.
Disney's worked this theme before — appealing to a natural theme with music and imagery — perhaps most notably in the "Firebird" sequence at the end of Fantastia 2000. Let's consider that the barometer for your enjoyment of Rivers of Light. If you rolled your eyes or yawned at "Firebird," stay away from Rivers of Light. But if, like me, you adored "Firebird," prepare to endure the necessary hassle to ensure your place on the riverbank to see this show.
Yeah, about that. Disney offers about a fourth of the approximately 3,000 seats in the amphitheater for stand-by guests, who started queuing two and a half hours before the performance. On a Tuesday. In early March. I don't want to imagine how early you'll need to arrive to secure a place when Spring Break gets rolling in a couple weeks.
Try instead for a Fastpass+ reservation, or book one of the Rivers of Light dining packages at Tiffins or Tusker House. While those reservations go fast, keep checking. After several failed attempts at getting a Fastpass+, I managed to snag one the morning of the day before my visit, allowing me to dump the Tiffins reservation I'd made a week earlier, taking the last available dining package slot at either restaurant for that day. I assume that someone grabbed that one as soon as it came back available.
And if you get a Fastpass+, ignore Disney's recommendation that you arrive 45 minutes before the show. I dropped myself in front of the FP+ entrance in Asia two hours before the performance, and cast members started letting us in 30 minutes later. By 45 minutes before the show, the FP+ seating area was close to 90 percent filled.
Is the show worth all that? Yes. (Okay, assuming you passed my "Firebird" test. Otherwise, oh heck no. And stay away from that side of the park in the two hours leading up to the show, unless you want to become encased in human gridlock.) If you asked me to summarize Rivers of Light in a single adjective, I'd offer "refreshing."
How so? Let's employ the kid test. Other Disney night shows tend to leave little kids in one of two states: overwhelmed and wailing, or jacked up and giddy. The shows are dessert at the end of the day — a giant dose of sugar after an already sweet day. But Rivers of Light is the cheese course at the end of the meal — something rich, yet not sweet.
At the end of the show, I saw in the children around me not giddiness... but calm. They weren't bored — far from it. Their expressions were more of awe. One child just kept staring at the river after the show had ended. Finally, after that long pause, she said, "that was the best show I've seen in my life."
Yeah, Rivers of Light passes the kid test. And the jaded theme park reporter test, too.
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