Home » The Best and Worst Nighttime Shows at the 8 Biggest Theme Parks in the US

The Best and Worst Nighttime Shows at the 8 Biggest Theme Parks in the US

After the sun sets, Disney and Universal’s Parks truly come alive.

It’s no surprise to any frequent visitor that theme parks transform by nightfall, with most every corner of every park completely revitalized by the warmth of gas lamps, torches, incandescent bulbs, and etheral glows. To walk around Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland, or Animal Kingdom’s Asia by nightfall is to see these familiar lands in entirely new ways.

And to accentuate those new, fantastic points of view, Disney and Universal have prepared nightly entertainment for its parks that ranges from passive scenery to full-blown nighttime spectaculars. Here, we’ll list Disney and Universal’s eight stateside parks (from least nighttime-friendly to most) and highlight our number one after dark draw for each. Do you agree with our order? With our number one pick for each park? Let us know in the comments! 

8. Universal Studios Florida

Image: Universal

For most of its history, Universal Studios Florida hasn’t really had any compelling entertainment meant to keep folks hanging around after dark. Of course, maybe that’s because Universal Orlando’s parks often close before dark except on the most busy summer days… While seeing the park’s photorealistic lands dedicated to New York, San Francisco, and Hollywood is fun, anything the park has offered in the way of nighttime entertainment has typically centered around the Studios’ central lagoon ranging from stunt shows to small, low-level pyrotechnics shows.

Celebrating Universal’s 100th anniversary in 2012, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular was a projection show centered on the lagoon with enormous floating barges rising to create falling water screens accompanied by fireworks and lights. In 2018, it was replaced with what we find to be a much more compelling after dark draw for the park…

Image: Universal

AFTER DARK DRAW: Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration

Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration is a more permanent-feeling show that uses submerged LED fountains and misty water screens without the intrusive floating infrastructure, performing for a multi-tiered garden viewing area.

It’s clearly Universal’s take on Disney’s World of Color. While Universal’s version is visually impressive, it suffers from the same drawback as any Universal nighttime show borrowing Disney’s “music and clips” format: Disney’s film portfolio simply has more of an emotional wallop for people than clips from Kung Fu Panda, Jaws, Fast and Furious, and Despicable Me. That means that most nights, you can saddle up to the lagoon without much hassle in the way of crowds.

7. Disney’s Hollywood Studios

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Disney’s Hollywood Studios is – first and foremost – a park in transition. It’s obvious to see that the park (often derided as a half-day park due to its small ride count) is figuring out exactly what it should be, and even though the park looks a whole lot better after dark, its nighttime offerings are about as scattered as its own identity.

For example, the park’s Hollywood Blvd. is gorgeous after dark, with neon signs lining the street and the Chinese Theater glowing a deep red at the road’s end. The same can be said of Sunset Blvd., terminating in the Hollywood Tower Hotel that’s hypnotically lit in purple with its flickering, sparking neon sign. Maybe you could even list Toy Story Land as a must-see after dark thanks to its dynamic lighting package that makes the land glow in saturated tones and makes the Slinky Dog Dash look like a real headliner. Some fans would probably argue that these nighttime scenes are the single biggest reason to stay after sunset.

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If we’re angling more toward nighttime entertainment as the reason to hang around after dark, Hollywood Studios seems to throw a lot at the wall hoping something will stick… The East coast version of Fantasmic! would be a fine contender (and probably is a headliner for most guests), but the park also offers projection shows on the Tower of Terror, projection shows on the Chinese Theater, and fireworks shows, all popping in and out of existence… In other words, there’s just a lot happening rather than having one definitive nightly headliner. But we think Disney is about to change that…

AFTER DARK DRAW: The Wonderful World of Animation

Maybe it’s unfair to list a show that hasn’t yet premiered as this park’s number one reason to stay after sunset… But here’s the thing: the Chinese Theater has proven itself to be perhaps the best projection show surface at Walt Disney World (not only because it’s relatively flat, but because, y’know, it’s modeled after a famous Hollywood theater, meaning it makes sense for clip shows to be shown on it). So far, it’s hosted “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular,” “Jingle Bell Jingle Bam,” and “Disney Movie Magic.” As evidence of the park’s mish-mashed purpose, those are all three playing interchangably based on the season. In other words, each has been very successful, but none have really risen to “permanent nighttime spectacular” level.

Image: Disney

Our hunch is that the Wonderful World of Animation is meant to do just that; to become this park’s “World of Color” – its iconic, definitive, long-running nighttime show. It makes sense… If Hollywood Studios is transforming into a park dedicated to letting guests step into the movies, then its nighttime show should be a celebration of the movies (and at Disney, that often means animation). We’re excited to see how this show ends up, and we suspect it’ll become the reason to stay at Disney’s Hollywood Studios after dark…

… though of course, it may be tied with seeing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at night…

6. Universal’s Islands of Adventure

Image: Universal

It’s somewhat surprising that Universal’s Islands of Adventure hasn’t really had a nighttime spectacular to date. Sure, like Universal Studios Florida, it’s not really open well into the nighttime very often… but even so, this park – tailor made to combat Disney’s dominance in detail – feels like the perfect place for a nightly show recapping the day’s adventures with Seuss characters, ancient myths, Marvel super heroes, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs, all featuring Islands of Adventure’s signature cinematic score… Still, the park’s central lagoon is curiously quiet without a fountain or firework in sight.

Until very recently, our number one reason for staying at Islands of Adventure after dark probably would’ve been Port of Entry, the park’s sensational “Main Street” style land representing all corners of the world joined together to create a harmonious adventurer’s marketplace. There’s something hypnotic and powerful about the park’s icon – the Pharos Lighthouse – with its iconic beam radiating out over the park as it circles (see top of feature), but of course, that’s changed…

Image: Universal

AFTER DARK DRAW: Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle

In June 2017 the park debuted the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle. Purely made of projections and the sweeping score of John Williams, we can’t in good conscience call the Nighttime Lights a full-blown nighttime spectacular. But for fans of Harry Potter, the “show” is a must-see, up to and including “The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts” seasonal variation and the recently-announced “Dark Arts at Hogwarts,” expected to debut this fall.

By the way, a real contender could be the upcoming Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – an indoor/outdoor roller coaster through the Forbidden Forest that should feel all the more harrowing once the sun sets… Keep an eye out for its opening in June. 

5. Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom has gone through a number of transitions in what its night look like. After years of on-again-off-again hosting the Main Street Electrical Parade, nighttime parades were seemingly retired in October, 2016. Though fans protested the 1972 parade’s “glowing away” for good, it turns out that leaving the pathways of the most-visited theme park on Earth free from obstructions has mostly been a good thing.

But for all the park’s popularity, it is strange that it doesn’t have a long-running, beloved, tried-and-true nighttime staple like Illuminations or World of Color, instead swapping out its projection / fireworks shows every few years. Luckily, the most recent iteration is a spectacular one…

Image: Disney

AFTER DARK DRAW: Happily Ever After

If you’re staying at Magic Kingdom after dark today, it’s probably for Happily Ever After, the newest iteration of the long-running fireworks / projection combo. Though the idea of projecting onto the Disney Parks castles has been around for a while, Cinderella Castle is really the only one large enough to act as the centerpiece of a show, and Happily Ever After uses it well: by transforming the castle rather than just using it as a very uneven movie screen. 

The 18-minute show is broken into six acts – Dreams, Journeys, Friendship, Love, Adversity, and Triumph – seemingly custom-built to yank a tear out of your eye by time “Go The Distance” rings out and triggers the start of the finale. Happily Ever After definitely fulfills the requirements of a nighttime spectacular and feels as epic as any other on this list.

4. Epcot

Though we’re tempted to show a curve ball and nominate the sparkling pathways outside of Epcot‘s Innoventions, there’s of course only one realistic option for Epcot’s nighttime draw…

Image: Disney

AFTER DARK DRAW: Illuminations: Reflections of Earth

Some Walt Disney World fans say that Illuminations: Reflections of Earth is the best nighttime spectacular at Disney Parks. It’s definitely a worthwhile opinion. Born of the resort’s Millennium Celebration in 2000, the current show is long-running for a reason. Literally meant to embody the formation of Earth, our present, and the planet’s interconnected future, the lofty, intellectually-thought-provoking show not only unites World Showcase’s cultural pavilions, but also echoes of Future World and our hope for a peaceful, united tomorrow.

It’s more important than ever to celebrate Illuminations, as Disney has already announced that it’ll close for good in the second half of 2019. It’ll be temporarily replaced by a show called “Epcot Forever,” but only as a brief holdover until a character-infused nighttime show (that, at least so far, looks like “World of Color,” but tenuously connected to Epcot’s message) is ready to go. 

As you might imagine with our top three, there are certainly more than one reasons to stay at these three parks after dark, which makes choosing a single After Dark Draw very difficult! But we’ll do our best to think outside the box and list the number one nighttime sightseeing activity for each.

3. Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure is perhaps the poster child for parks that seemingly reenergize after dark. From the electric whistle of the glowing 1920s Buena Vista Street and the lantern-lit forests of Grizzly Peak, to the incandescent Pixar Pier.

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It just so happens that the waters of Paradise Bay come alive each night with one of Disney’s most amazing nighttime spectaculars ever, World of Color. Hundreds of dancing fountains, water screens, flamethrowers, and spotlights come together to create a show that tends to leave visitors speechless. In any other park, World of Color would reign supreme among reasons to stay after dark… But it’s not our number one After Dark Draw for this park…

Maybe because Disney California Adventure also offers Paint the Night – the parade-envy of Disney Parks across the globe. The 21st century take on an “electrical parade” is literally hypnotic as it winds its way through the park to the tune of Owl City’s “When Can I See You Again?” But even THAT doesn’t stand as our number one reason to visit California Adventure after dark…

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AFTER DARK DRAW: Radiator Springs

But at Disney California Adventure, the crowning achievement has to be Cars Land. Though Disney doesn’t publicize it on any Times Guide or show sheet, there’s a beloved tradition in Radiator Springs every night at sundown: The Chords’ 1956 hit “Sh-Boom” is broadcast through town as each of its stores kicks on its neon signs, one after another. The romantic, heart-swelling experience is just the start.

After dark, it’s literally a trip to walk down the neon Route 66 with its animated signs, culminating in the vast and breathtaking Cadillac Range glowing saturated hues of desert orange and red. It’s the kind of idealized experience you can only get at Disney Parks.

2. Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom wasn’t really designed to be open after dark. Why? Like most zoos, when the park opened it was determined that the park’s main draw – the animals – would head to bed around sundown, leaving the park with just its two rides (at that time, Kilimajaro Safaris and the Lost Legend: Countdown to Extinction). However, in the lead-up to the debut of Pandora – The World of AVATAR, Disney made a conscious effort to prepare this park for a nighttime audience. Since the animals would be in bed, Imagineers looked to super-charge the park with entertainment (and entertainment that would not be loud or bright enough to startle the animals).

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A contender for the number one reason to stay at Animal Kingdom after dark might be Tree of Life Awakenings, periodic projection shows displayed on and around the park’s central icon. The short, stop-in-your-tracks-to-watch vignettes feature tasteful Disney film references that send majestic lights pouring from the tree’s canopy and have leaves gently fall all around (via projection, of course). They’re brief, stirring interludes that could probably stand to be expanded into a full, Happily Ever After-esque nighttime show. Disney would also market nighttime rides on Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Sunset Safaris as must-sees. 

In Asia, Imagineers constructed a gorgeous waterside amphitheater to show Rivers of Light. The nighttime show is ostensibly meant to be the park’s World of Color, replacing Disney characters with beautiful footage from DisneyNature documentaries, and featuring an emphasis on storytelling, legend, and the beauty and harmony of the natural world. For some reason, the show just hasn’t “clicked” with guests, and major cuts to its staffing have made the show feel depressingly lifeless. Unfortunately, the failure of Rivers of Light to grab and hold an after-dark audience meant Animal Kingdom’s nighttime hours were scaled back, and the Tree of Life Awakenings shows are now seasonal.

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AFTER DARK DRAW: The Valley of Mo’ara

Still, the number one after dark draw can’t be a surprise. Animal Kingdom’s entire nighttime transformation was all in support of Pandora – the alien moon from James Cameron’s AVATAR. It’s not just that this extraterrestrial world is a sight to behold with its floating mountains and alien plants… it’s that the entire land literally glows after sundown. The premise in the films is that Pandora is a bioluminscent moon where the plants and animals exude their own light (like Earth’s fireflies, jellyfish, and deep-sea life). 

While you can see that glowing life anytime on the land’s Na’vi River Journey dark ride, to see the entire land suddenly bathed in the otherworldly blue glow of bioluminscence is truly a sight to behold. And like Cars Land, the most spectacular thing is that it’s not a show with a beginning and end; it’s yours to explore.

1. Disneyland Park

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Because its common descriptors (“charming,” “fairytale,” “cozy,” and “homey”) are even more true after the sun sets, the original Disneyland is still the park to see after dark. Each and every land is completely bathed in warm, fantastic environments that you have to see to believe. Twinkling trees, the warm glow from within Frontierland’s shops, the shine of brass through New Orleans Square, the flickering Edison bulbs of Main Street… There’s truly nothing like it.

Though Disneyland does offer nightly fireworks and / or projection shows (displayed on the much smaller Sleeping Beauty Castle, plus the park’s iconic “it’s a small world” exterior), it’s been since the 50th-Anniversary-inspired “Remember… Dreams Come True” that a Disneyland fireworks show has really knocked our socks off. In the meantime, it’s hosted both the Main Street Electrical Parade and Paint the Night. But love it or hate it, there’s no denying that one Disneyland attraction reigns supreme each night.

Image: Disney


Though it’s since been exported to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Tokyo DisneySea, Disneyland still retains the definitive version of Fantasmic.

The show begins the instant Mickey Mouse falls asleep and follows his dream as he encounters Disney characters. Along the way, Mickey himself discovers his ability to control water, color, fire, and light. More than a mere fireworks show or projection show, Fantasmic includes dozens and dozens of live actors, two full-sized sailing ships, a half-dozen floats and barges, multiple fountain arrays, water screens, and more, and all supported by a completely original score that stands as one of the strongest in Disney’s entire catalogue. 

Fantasmic is abstract, non sequitor, and largely plotless… until the Villains invade Mickey’s dream intent on turning it into a nightmare, resulting in Mickey’s one-on-one showdown with one of the most incredible Animatronics on Earth (and one of very few you’ll see outside of rides). 

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Some Disney Parks fans absolutely detest Fantasmic, and maybe it’s not so impossible to see why – the nightly show turns Disneyland’s already-cramped Western half into a continuous and unrelenting state of gridlock for hours, and transforms the otherwise picturesque Rivers of America and New Orleans Square into an explosive Las-Vegas-style extravaganza not quite befitting the gorgeous, traditional, park. On paper, it’s a laughable, cheesy, ’90s-stylized affront to Disneyland; an operational nightmare that even the most prepared guests feel is out of their control.

Yet somehow, Fantasmic just works. The music, the special effects, and the unforgettable moments pile on one after another, making the show feel like it was actually worth the headache… And yes, most guests probably feel a little misty after the last 90 seconds… It’s a driving, emotional, captivating, awe-inspiring show.

Aside from fireworks, Fantasmic was probably the impetus to make Disney Imagineers see that true “nighttime spectaculars” could radically shift Disney Parks… and boy have they.