Home » The Real Reason Why You Should Never Leave an Orlando Theme Park Before Dark

The Real Reason Why You Should Never Leave an Orlando Theme Park Before Dark

A visit to a Disney theme park is always a magical experience. Disney after dark is that much better. There’s something unforgettable about the hot night’s air combined with various theme park landmarks reaching into the moonlit sky. The view of the stars adds to that special touch as buildup begins for the most beloved of park closing events, the kiss goodnight. The events that begin this chain of events are the nighttime spectaculars, the ones with fireworks and stories. They’re a warm hug in the night, the perfect cuddle. Today, I’m going to rank the various options, and I’m even going to include one from the competition.

6. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular

Image: DisneyDisney’s Hollywood Studios has an embarrassment of riches with regards to nighttime shows. Both of their evening exhibitions are spectacular, something true of all nightly shows ranked here.

Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular is exactly what it sounds like, a celebration of the most beloved movie franchise of all-time. At the Disney Chinese Theater, Disney uses giant projection screens and digital technology to display some of the most thrilling moments from the franchise. They also shoot fireworks into the blackened sky.

Oddly, these fireworks are less important at some of the shows due to the story told, and A Galactic Spectacular is one. You’re here to celebrate your love of Star Wars with kindred spirits. The show is quite good, just a bit basic and predictable. The problem with this list is that everything is worthy of your attention. Something has to be last, though.

5. Rivers of Light

Image: DisneyFor many years, Disney’s Animal Kingdom lacked a nighttime exhibition of its own. That (finally) changed in 2017 when the much anticipated, long delayed Rivers of Light finally debuted. Critics immediately assailed it as not worth the wait, a complaint I consider unfair.

Rivers of Light is the brightest, most colorful show in Orlando. The lotus floats that “bloom” with giant splashes of water in the air are breathtaking to view. While I’ll cede that the story is a bit incoherent, I just don’t think it matters much. While at Disney, theme park tourists want to feel swept away by the proceedings. Rivers of Light is wonderful in doing so, reinforcing how special it is that guests can now visit a functional zoo after dark.

4. The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle

Image: UniversalI’m going to say two things about Universal Resort Orlando. The first is that I am a huge Harry Potter fanatic, a grown man with gray in my beard who proudly owns a wand. As a muggle, I can’t use it, but I still look at it in the display case. Its presence makes me smile. The second is that I liked the previous Universal nightly exhibition, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories more.

Yes, I know that this sounds like sacrilege. I’m a diehard movie lover who adored the historical celebration of Universal’s greatest films. I feel the same way about Harry Potter, and I readily acknowledge that the special effects are night and day better now.

The sticking point is that the previous show lasted for 20 minutes. The Hogwarts projection show lasts maybe six minutes. Sure, it’s shiny and somehow fresher than the Star Wars offering across town. It’s just not fully fleshed out enough for me. A better Harry Potter exhibition would have competed for the top spot.

3. IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth

Image: DisneyAn amazing but true fact about IllumiNations is that it’s the most decorated nighttime exhibition of the 21st century. Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards have chosen this fireworks display as the best in the industry for 12 out of the last 13 (!) years. It effectively has the same glowing critical reviews as an upper tier Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes.

Personally, I have the warmest of feelings toward the show. As I’ve chronicled, one of my family’s favorite things to do is book a 7:15 p.m. reservation at Rose & Crown at the United Kingdom Pavilion. The group will sit by the water and relish in the setting until the fireworks begin. The view from this spot is inimitable.

Why haven’t I ranked it higher? I’ve never loved the show itself as much as the one above it, and IllumiNations simply doesn’t have the tech of the top choice. To win an award for the body of 13 years, a show has to be, you know, older. It’s been playing since 1999. While I still love it, IllumiNations has lost something over the years, at least for me. Anyone who has never seen it before is in for such a special treat.

2. Fantasmic! Show and Fireworks

Image: DisneyThe same issue isn’t true of Fantasmic! even though it’s almost a year older. From day one, the story of this exhibition has elevated it above the competition. Literally dozens of your favorite characters show up to battle in a conflict for the soul of Disney. Mickey Mouse anchors the side of the angels while several members of Disney’s rogues’ gallery face off against him.

I’ve always felt that Fantasmic! has the perfect level of grandeur for the setting. I previously discussed some of the tricks from the show. The most important ones are the giant snake that seems like it will swallow our beloved Mickey and the dragon that towers above everything else in the show.

In terms of story, Fantasmic! is the grand champion of Orlando’s nighttime exhibitions. It’s also the ideal place to see many of your favorite characters. Until recently, I would have ranked it as the best over show. Alas, something better is already just around the corner at Disney…

1. Happily Ever After Fireworks Show

Image: DisneyWow. I know I’m supposed to be the wordsmith who elevates the discourse, but I feel like Keanu Reeves when I watch Happily Ever After. Every five seconds, I say, “Whoa!”

In 2017, Disney replaced its longstanding nighttime display, Wishes, with a new program. And while I desperately miss the song, Wishes, I’m so glad that they did. I’ve seen the old show dozens of times, negating its power. Happily Ever After is an entirely new ballgame, one popping with state of the art special effects.

The digital projections on Cinderella Castle aren’t new per se, but you’ve never seen them the way that they appear in Happily Ever After. You’re watching the highest quality graphics, ones that surpass what you’d see in your home, even with a 4k television. Scenes from beloved Disney films flicker on the castle, highlighting some of the greatest moments in Disney/Pixar animation.

A few movies including recent ones like Moana receive longer sequences, playing hit songs like “How Far I’ll Go” to punctuate the proceedings. It’s the most magical part of Happily Ever After. Your favorite Disney music meshes with some of your favorite characters in moments straight from their movies. It’s magical in the purest sense of the word.

More than any other nighttime exhibition in Orlando, Happily Ever After delivers escapism. While watching the 18-minute show, everything else in the world slips away in a cornucopia of visuals and song. It should stand as the best fireworks show in Orlando for several years to come…unless Universal ups the ante with Harry Potter.