Being a theme park fan means learning to live with loss. Books and paintings may last for centuries, but only a handful of attractions make it past their second decade. While Walt Disney World has bid farewell to countless beloved favorites over the years – from Mr. Toad to the Great Movie Ride – the turnout on Sept. 30 for Epcot's final nightly performance of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth was impressive even by Orlando standards, ending in a parking lot traffic jam that took me nearly two hours to exit.
Although the misty-eyed masses who lined the World Showcase lagoon for one last look at the laser-lit fountains might not be able to articulate why they were tearing up at the show's "We Go On" theme song, one person who can was watching alongside them. Mark Nichols, a former Walt Disney Entertainment show producer who shepherded the show from inception to its 1999 opening, joined fans waterside in saying goodbye to his baby, and he shared with me some secrets behind its long-running success just before the blazing torches blew out for the final time.
Nichols was the first person hired for the Illuminations 2000 team (as it was then known) in 1997, and began by surveying guests about their expectations for a millennium spectacular. "Disney [is] an organization that is branded with fireworks, has been since Disneyland opened in 1955, and a lot of people think that fireworks shows mean celebration and New Year's Eve and looking back on the past," Nichols recalled as we waited for the show to begin. "We expected it to be the biggest New Year's Eve party ever, and that's not at all what the guests wanted. That's not what the millennium meant to them ... it's not looking back at where we've been, but looking forward; and not with fear or concerns but rather with hope."
From those humanist responses, Nichols and director Don Dorsey crafted the show's story structure. "The first portion of the show is the history of history in 12 minutes, from the Big Bang right up until the fake finale," Nichols explained. "The tag, that's all about hope and looking forward: We are one, we go on. That's why it starts with one voice, one candle, and it becomes many voices and hundreds of candles floating on the surface of the water."
In fact, Nichols insists that Reflections of Earth was not a "fireworks show," instead comparing it to dance choreography in its emphasis on musical synchronization. "I had the music [by composer Gavin Greenaway] completed months ahead of schedule, and I was able to give that completed music to all the designers ... and everybody designed to the music," Nichols said, describing how they calculated "to the frame" how long they had for the giant "Earth barge" to float into the lagoon's center. "[Greenaway] just wrote from his heart, and this is what the story meant to him. We shared that CD with everyone on the team who designed lighting or fireworks or fountains. They all had the music and were inspired by the same thing."
That same music went on to inspire millions of guests, leaving an artistic legacy Nichols is still proud of. "It's seen by 35,000 people a night, every night, for 20 years – more than any Broadway show in history," he said, moments before the final performance began. "That which we started with in 1997 – all about hope and coming together and that we go on even if things suck – it worked then, and it still works now. It's what we need now."
Towards the end of the show, Nichols slipped away into the crowd, telling me later that he had a personal tradition of walking the promenade to see guests reacting to the show. That night, he took his last opportunity to walk among the crowd, and "saw dozens upon dozens singing the song through their tears."
Never one to wait for the corpse to cool, Disney debuted Epcot Forever the very next night. Directed by Mad Cow co-founder Alan Bruun, IllumiNations' stopgap successor will celebrate the park's past for the next year, until HarmonioUS helps launch Epcot's reimagining in 2020.
As a child of the 1980s who enjoyed EPCOT Center in its prime, I got chills from the new show's snippets of "Tomorrow's Child" and "Magic Journeys," and the kite-dragging jet-skis make a memorable visual impact. However, the soundtrack's kiddie vocals quickly grow grating, and the use of Aladdin's "Whole New World" for the finale feels like a cruelly ironic foreshadowing of the imminent onslaught of intellectual properties across what was originally an ambitious experiment in edutainment.
One thing is certain: Few fans will be weeping at Epcot Forever's wake the way they were at IllumiNations' funeral.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 9, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.