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I was prepared for the worst, but Disney's Rivers of Light turned out to be the best kind of surprise

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Theme Park Connection, long my go-to dealer for feeding my insatiable attraction-ephemera addiction, shuttered its storefront near the Florida Mall last week. I was there on the final day, picking through piles of castoffs in search of bargains, when I unearthed an artifact documenting one of the biggest duds in Disney history: a mint-condition press packet for Light Magic. Introduced at Anaheim's Disneyland in the summer of 1997, Light Magic was billed as a replacement for the beloved Electrical Parade and featured a cast of "playful Pixies" performing on rolling floats that parked along Main Street for a 14-minute stage show.

Described in the press materials as "a journey of musical and visual wonder," the show was originally intended to run for years, but public reaction was negative from the first glitch-plagued preview. Audiences failed to warm to the unfamiliar characters and were confused by a parade that didn't actually move, leading to Light Magic being permanently extinguished barely three months after it debuted.

For two decades since, Light Magic has been the elephant in the room whenever failed theme park attractions are discussed, but for a while it looked like it would lose its ignoble crown to another luminously titled Titanic.

ROCKY ROLLOUT

Rivers of Light, the newest evening entertainment at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, was announced way back in 2013, and it was supposed to debut last April as the anchor of Disney's new effort to keep guests in the park past sunset. But after briefly previewing a portion of the production for the media last spring, the premiere was canceled and a poorly received Jungle Book show was hastily assembled as a substitute for the summertime crowds. Mickey went mysteriously mum for months about Rivers of Light, fueling dire rumors about the show's technical and creative issues, until a surprise soft-opening on Feb. 10, followed a week later by its official premiere.

That kind of rocky rollout often bodes ill in the world of themed entertainment, which is why I was prepared for the worst when sitting down last week for my first viewing of Rivers of Light. But in this job, I've learned that it's occasionally nice to be completely wrong about something, and Rivers of Light turned out to be the best kind of surprise.

SERENE AND SUBTLE

Staged on a body of water located between Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest roller coaster and Finding Nemo theater, Rivers of Light takes the fountain and projection technologies previously seen in Hollywood Studios' Fantasmic and California Adventure's World of Color and uses them to craft a refreshingly serene and subtle experience that's almost entirely free of the bombastic excess I've come to expect from Disney spectaculars.

Guests watching from a rustic 5,000-seat amphitheater (if they were lucky enough to snag scarce FastPass reservations) or standing along the shoreline are gently eased into the atmosphere as giant lotus blossoms – the show's central visual metaphor – slowly float into formation, and silhouettes of passing pachyderms flicker on distant foliage. The lights dim, composer Don Harper's exotically orchestrated original score starts, and the flower flotilla is joined by Asian junks bearing shadow puppets and a menagerie of glowing animal sculptures designed by Michael Curry.

For the next 15 minutes, Rivers of Light immerses viewers in images of animals both figurative and literal, brought to life through an expert blend of live performers and cutting-edge audiovisual technology. What it doesn't have is any familiar Disney cartoon characters, massive pyrotechnic explosions, or the predictable "good triumphs over evil" storyline that underlies most Disney attractions. Instead, Rivers of Light has moments of grace, beauty, charm and even quiet contemplation; it has much more in common aesthetically with an Olympic Games opening ceremony than with Wishes, the popular Magic Kingdom fireworks show that finishes its nearly 15-year run on May 11.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN?

As enthralled as I was by Rivers of Light, there's cause to worry that the general public may feel it's too short (more than five minutes was reportedly trimmed from the preliminary version, along with the advertised army of drone-like floating lanterns), too slow, too abstract or too understated, especially during the finale; while explosions would scare the park's animal inhabitants, seat-shaking subwoofers would give the ending a much-needed kick.

Also, the sweaty post-show stampede quickly snapped me out of the Zen "we are one" zone the performance left me in; walk out the long way through Asia to avoid the bottleneck by Dinoland. Of course, Disney management hopes those crowds will still stick around for Rivers of Light once the novelty has worn off, not exit after experiencing the really-finally-about-to-open Avatar area. I hope they do as well, if only to prove there's an appetite for more sophisticated spectacles like this.

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