Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration began October 1, 2021. The 18-month promotional event is joined by a global marketing campaign, inviting anyone who’s been a part of Walt Disney World’s half-century story to return for “The Most Magical Celebration on Earth.” Of course, beneath the golden gleam, Team Disney Orlando is also dealing with the sobering reality of diminished tourism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where slashed budgets, canceled projects, reduced capacity, and new upcharges are unfortunately sure to be on the top of minds of guests returning from vacation.
Put another way, the resort’s 50th Anniversary is certainly not the year Disney expected a quarter of Theme Park Tourist readers to declare that they’ll never return to Walt Disney World, and this time they mean it.
Two bright spots in the year’s frustrations were two of the big-budget holdovers of the 50th – a new nighttime spectacular at EPCOT and another at Magic Kingdom. As with any big-budget Disney Parks project, a whole lot was riding on Harmonious and Disney Enchantment… Not only did they need to be homeruns in their own right, but they needed to be at least as good as their respective predecessors – Illuminations and Happily Ever After – and probably better. They needed to bookend a day at Epcot and Magic Kingdom just as perfectly... and it wouldn't hurt if they actually celebrated, y'know, fifty years of Walt Disney World.
But that’s a task Disney Imagineers knowingly undertook, right? So… did they succeed? Well...
EPCOT – Harmonious
At least in name, Harmonious sounds like a show perfect for EPCOT… one with a central message of togetherness, unity, and harmony. Even when all that was known about it was its name, it was a foregone conclusion that Harmonious would include Disney songs and characters. It’s 2021, after all, and EPCOT – where Disney characters were once purposefully excluded – is now in the midst of an open-ended, multi-year reimagining that literally hinges on Disney, Pixar, and Marvel characters. With Frozen already in place in Norway, Ratatouille in France, and reportedly a whole lot more on the way, it made sense that whatever Harmonious ended up being, it would be more World of Color than Reflections of Earth.
On paper, then, fans were braced for Harmonious, even as five massive black barges – a floating “Compass” made of four 88-foot long LED screens and a central, 60-foot tall upright ring – were moored permanently the Lagoon’s center. Hey – at least Disney was going big. Even if the cost was daytime views, at least Harmonious would be larger than life, innovative, and astounding in its scale in a way not seen since World of Color at Disney California Adventure.
When Harmonious officially debuted on October 1, 2021, the reception was… well… mixed. Far, far too mixed for a production of its size and budget.
The show begins strongly, in what’s been called “Act I – Gather.” After a warm-up comprised of vocal selections from Frozen, The Lion King, and Moana, Act I hinges on a very strong mash-up of “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana and “I Can Go The Distance” from Hercules, both leaning into the show's multi-lingual aspect. It crescendos and reveals much of the show’s arsenal of lights and fireworks early on. (Disney still hasn't quite matched the slow build of a show's technical capabilities as found in World of Color, eager to set off every light, fountain, and flame in the first 90 seconds instead.)
“Act II” is referred to as “Celebrate,” but it’s essentially all of the show except the introduction, and this is where Harmonious loses any sort of flow. Some insiders alleged that like Rivers of Light, Harmonious’ production had been plagued with issues leading up to a complete reshuffling and re-editing just weeks before its debut. Though unconfirmed, that would make sense. Unlike Happily Ever After, Harmonious feels like a clip show – one where Imagineers scoured the archives for Disney movies that aren’t Euro-centric and shuffled them together in discrete singalong segments.
Don't get me wrong – representation, inclusion, and global culture are absolutely essential for The Walt Disney Company and Disney Parks. They're also a really, really great foundation for EPCOT and its World Showcase. But does Harmonious actually represent and include global culture in a meaningful way?
Songs from Aladdin are, I guess, supposed to celebrate the culture, music, stories, or region of the Middle East. (Nevermind that several of Aladdin’s songs were edited upon re-release for containing harmful depictions of the Middle East – this, after all, was a movie produced long before Disney’s fabled extensive research trips and their later determination to work with advisors to get cultural depictions right).
India is then spoken for by songs from The Jungle Book; China by Mulan’s “Reflection” (even though Mulan was a famous box office bust in China, and largely rejected by Chinese audiences at the time of its release). The Lion King checks off the continent of Africa somehow, then France (Beauty and the Beast and Hunchback) and Scotland (Brave). In the quietest of the show's moments, it's peaceful and poetic. In most, though, articulating arms, sputtering novels, whipping fountains, and screen-based visuals create a cacophany of color and chaos.
"Act II" concludes with the most fun segments, representing Latin America (with Coco and Saludos Amigos) and the United States (using the New Orleans-set Princess and the Frog). It’s hard to tell if each musical segment is meant to celebrate a story from a given region (i.e. Beauty and the Beast for France), a musical style (i.e. jazz for America), the role of music in a culture (i.e. Coco for Mexico) or just the abstract idea of a place (i.e. Mulan for China), or maybe all four at different times?
Then the show closes with an "Act III," comprised of “Someday,” a reflective song cut from Hunchback of Notre Dame, but amped up to an anthem here. It still feels a whole lot less like a grand finale than a return of “How Far I’ll Go” and “I Can Go the Distance” would’ve. Even as colors, fireworks, LED screens, and fountains dance, Harmonious ends awkwardly, leaving the crowd with a hum of "Is it over?" No one would expect Harmonious to have a story or plot per se, but like Happily Ever After, World of Color, or Illuminations, even a flow – a defined structure, clear chapters, and a custom theme song to both begin and end the show – would've helped big time.
If you haven't seen the show yet, we encourage you to review Disney Harmonious here:
Don’t get me wrong – Harmonious is big, it’s bright, it’s bold, and it has some very, very strong sections. But what does it mean? Or more to the point, why is it in Epcot? Because it features Disney movies set in other lands? Couldn’t Harmonious be projected on Cinderella Castle to exactly as much effect? Couldn’t it be set in the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater with videos projected on fountain screens rather than barges, and be cast as a “clip show” of popular Disney songs to end a day at Hollywood Studios? Couldn’t it be projected on the water at Disney's Animal Kingdom, wrapping up a day of exploring distant lands?
It’s easy to imagine that Harmonious’ media could just as easily be pulled from those LED screens and reuploaded to Animal Kingdom’s; that its hardware could simply replace the Fantasmic set at Hollywood Studios; that it could be projected onto Cinderella Castle without a second thought. What happened to parks with such strong identities that they needed strong bookends to convey their message?! Harmonious is only half the battle… Read on...