Shining Light on One of Disney's Theme Park Design Tricks

September 3, 2020, 6:47 PM · What is your favorite time of day to visit a theme park? Many of might say "right at opening," when lines are short and you can bag many rides before crowds fill the park. But many fans also cherish that golden hour when the sun sets and the lights turn on.

It's an especially rewarding moment at the Disney theme parks, which consistently deliver amazing lighting design that goes far beyond simply illuminating the parks like it was still daytime.

In this week's, final episode of "The Rohdes, Less Traveled," Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde said "light is a form of emotion," in explaining one of the tools that Imagineers use to evoke audience response to attractions such as Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort, for which Rohde was the creative director.

Rohde dives into Pandora: The World of Avatar, which he said is bathed in a "third mysterious light" that's not sun and not fire or other human-made light. It's simulated bioluminescence, which most people are not used to seeing. That helps to make the land feel like another planet.

"In a built environment, when you are looking at a light, you are not only looking at a function, you are looking at a little encapsulated emotion."

What is your favorite example of lighting design in a theme park?

Replies (9)

September 3, 2020 at 11:17 PM

My favorite theme park night lighting trick is actually a simple one. It's where the windows and doorways on the facades have a yellow candlelight-like glow. It always makes me think that the characters are inside going about their business.

September 4, 2020 at 3:29 AM

Mrs Plum and myself love the morning as the whole day is yours brimming with excitement and anticipation but Disney do do nighttime on another level. I used to love Disney Studios at Christmas, standing amongst the Osborne lights listening to the opening salvo of Trans Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo" blasting out. It always made me tingle and re-ignited my excitement for the evening. Seeing the Haunted Mansion at Halloween, at night, limited light, shrouded in mist heightened our anticipation and the whole vibe of Magic Kingdom and Epcot is magical when the sun sets. Pandora certainly provides a different atmosphere and experience at night. But, seriously, is there any better theme park experience, anywhere, than at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, standing in Main Street, watching the parade go by, listening to the music, seeing the castle glistening resplendently in hundreds of thousands of lights with snow cascading down. Damn! I want to be there again this year.

September 4, 2020 at 6:14 AM

I used to love Magic Kingdom at night. Used to. It’s been years since MK has had a nighttime parade. When SpectroMagic would take to the streets, I truly thought it was actual magic. It’s a shame that Disney has yet to bring a nighttime parade to Magic Kingdom.

It’s also sad timing of this article in general, considering it’s difficult to enjoy the parks after dark at all right now. I think we will see people return when we see the parade (sad there’s only one at one park) and nighttime spectaculars return.

September 4, 2020 at 1:24 PM

While I think the lighting and atmosphere of PtWoA is pretty cool and unique, it doesn't fully live up to what Rohde and the Imagineers promised when the land was announced. The lighting is very heavily dependent upon phosphorescent paint activated by black lights and some other subtle projected light. The design does create a completely different atmosphere and look than what the land looks like during the day, but it's missing that level of interactivity that was initially promised. When it was first announced, Disney showed scenes from Avatar where characters walk across features that light up beneath their feet and the intensity of glows changes with a character's proximity to certain plant life. Given these scenes, I expected Imagineers to hearken back to the fiber optic lighting embedded in pavers utilized outside of EPCOT's Imagination Pavilion, but perhaps with some updated technology. I wasn't really sure how they were going to pull off the interactivity, but expected more than what they delivered, which is ultimately far less impressive and natural than what is presented in the movie.

There's no doubt that the lighting around PtWoA is unique and interesting, but when compared to what I think Imagineers wanted to do and what they hinted at when the land was first announced, it's underwhelming, more like an upscale funhouse meets Jackson Pollack than the immersive, alien look shown in the movie and conceptual art/videos.

I actually think the lighting (and sound) design in Galaxy's Edge is far more impressive. The lighting is incredibly subtle, but creates a lot of different "micro-environments" around the land. However, one of the most immersive effects is the diffused blue theatrical lighting projected across the sky above Black Spire Outpost that creates an other-worldly look to the sky, bolstering the immersiveness of Galaxy's Edge.

September 4, 2020 at 10:18 AM

Cars Land would be my pick, not just for the obvious neon but for the Radiator Springs Racers queue at twilight. I'm also a sucker for the walkways around Rivers of America in Orlando in the evening.

September 4, 2020 at 12:50 PM


I remember the behind-the-scenes video of which you speak, and I too think that what was delivered is not what was shown. I do love this land at night, however, but for a different reason. The sound design of the land is completely different at night, with the sounds of Pandora’s animals creating quite a symphony of exotic jungle atmospherics, both alien and familiar.


The lighting around the Rivers of America and Frontierland overall at night is one of my favorite theme park memories as a child and still creates all of the “feels” when I see that beautiful low light elsewhere. The walk from Canada to Morocco at Epcot has another great flow of this ambience.

September 4, 2020 at 5:12 PM

I don't think many people really give lighting the respect it deserves. If you've ever been inside your favorite dark ride with the work lights on, you might begin to understand how vital good lighting design is. The most basic elements in a Mansion full of ghosts, or Northern California Redwood Forrest hosting a lost alien, or flooded Southern Plantation inhabited by the Monster side of the family come to brilliant life with the proper illumination.
The same holds true for outdoor environments after nightfall.
Robert beat me to it. If you have never been on Route 66 in Radiator Springs at dusk when 'Shaboom, Shaboom' plays and the neon light comes on, you just don't know what you are missing.
I was also also a HUGE fan of the old Lost Continent at Islands of Adventure at night. Sinbad's Village and Merlin Wood were just spectacular at night. Much of Sinbad's village is still left, but Merlin Wood fell for the Boy who lived.

September 4, 2020 at 8:16 PM

I have a soft spot as I worked there in the college program, and it opened when I was a Disney-obsessed tween, so the Hollywood parts of Disney’s Hollywood Studios are really impressive. The neon. The low light. Walk the bend around Echo Lake from Gertie to Prime Time Cafe and you think that people are living there. Always loved the music and lights on after park close when I worked Mickey’s of Hollywood. We were the last to leave many nights, and the streets were sometimes free of third shift.

September 9, 2020 at 11:25 AM

When I visited Pandora in March, I was disappointed by the night-time lighting FX: the boxes of red-blue LED spotlights were very apparent behind the foliage, and the blacklight vegetation patterns on the pavement were like indoor "Glow Golf" decor. (And the alien flora was clearly made of rigid non-vegetable materials. Durability, yes, but even "plastic plant" materials would've been more convincing.)

For that matter, the lighting across Animal Kingdom for "After Hours" was poor: I could barely find my way around. Directional signage wasn't illuminated, the rough-textured pathways had IMHO-inadequate safety lighting, and most of the theming wasn't visible. "Expedition Everest" was not equipped for night-time operation; if I can't *see* the terrain rushing past, a big part of the experience is missing. (Given the majority of its operational hours are before 7:00 pm or during summer twilight, it's understandably not a design priority.)

The "DinoLand USA" section worked pretty well, but it's self-illuminated by the carnival-style bulbs on the rides.

(@fattyackin: Pandora-at-night has a distinct soundscape? Somehow that didn't register. I may've just been fatigued from climbing the interminable switchback to "Flight of Passage", which IMHO needs "NNN meters remaining" countdown-signs to reassure guests that they're not stuck in purgatory.)

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