Rivers of Light was originally announced back in 2013 as a nighttime show on Discovery River, and later in 2014, given a name and more of a description. In 2015, Disney Parks released a video with Imagineer and Animal Kingdom paterfamilias, Joe Rohde. Joe described how the new nighttime offerings at Animal Kingdom would all be connected; the night safaris on Kilimanjaro Safari, the Tree of Life coming to life by the animals depicted on it, all culminating with Rivers of Light. I recently experienced Rivers of Light on its second day of soft opening, after months of technical delays. I’ll share my thoughts in a moment, but first, a little background on my views of Animal Kingdom.
So many guests have always viewed Animal Kingdom as a “half day park” (while I have spent a full day there and only seen half the park), but with the nighttime additions, we are able to see the animal world in a whole new light as it were. Animal Kingdom, to me, has always been a very personal park. It is the only park I have ever been to on opening day; witnessing those opening day festivities, and meeting Joe Rohde himself wandering the park and taking it all in. Less subjective than just my memories, the personal part comes with our relationship to it, as humans, to both the animal kingdom and nature in general. I have always felt that, to have a place like this, a sanctuary, in the midst of thrills and fantasy and water parks and dining and shopping, is such an important and necessary haven. Perhaps because so much of the educational component of my beloved EPCOT Center has been lost over the years, I turned to Animal Kingdom as the next natural spot for my love of and hope for the world around us. Sure, Animal Kingdom has its own blemishes (I’m looking at you, Dinoland), but as a mother of 3, I understand the need for keeping all guests entertained and happy, not just those with an interest or appreciation in the incredible worlds which exist in reality, all around us. And truthfully, Restaurantosaurus has some pretty stellar theming, I could spend hours in there. In addition, I do not take for granted that I am a local, and can come and go and spend as much or as little time in this or any park as my schedule permits, vs. being on a strict vacation timeline. In short, I may not agree with the moniker of a half day park, but I get it.
All of that said, I welcomed and was very excited by the announcements of the nighttime entertainment additions. We saw the Tree of Life little mini-shows – “Nighttime Awakenings” one night after watching Jungle Book: Alive with Magic (the summer replacement for Rivers of Light while it was still being worked on) and loved them all. Such a simple, yet beautiful addition that doesn’t cheapen or lessen the message of the park, in fact, it enhances it and highlights the many animal connections within the Disney world. Over the weekend, I happened to check the My Disney Experience app to see if I could get a FastPass+ for Rivers of Light. I had previously checked for an entire week of dates but couldn’t find any. I wasn’t sure how the Annual Passholder preview was working because I never seem to get those emails or notifications. Anyway, I lucked out and when I logged in at 9am, found 2 FastPasses for the show that night. TIP: If you are trying to get FastPasses, keep checking throughout the day if you can’t find them first thing in the morning.
I never posted a formal review of Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, because I waited until its last weekend to see it. Boy was I mad at myself. I loved the show. We ended up seeing it both nights that weekend, including its last show ever and it was amazing. The live performances by the dancers and musicians were incredible. The music was so moving, and fit in perfectly with projections from the live action Jungle Book film. We were very much hoping to see similar parts of live performance utilized within Rivers of Light when it opened, however, that was not the case. Still, I loved Rivers of Light.
[I’m about to give a synopsis of the show, so if you’d like to not be spoiled, feel free to skip the next paragraph and the photo gallery. However, in my opinion, there aren’t really any elements to be spoiled. Joe Rohde said himself when describing the show, that it would take “light and heat – fire, and water, and combine them.” But proceed at your own risk if you want to be completely surprised.]
We sat in the front row of the second set of seats from the right, and had a perfect view of all the action. There are two boats which come out from opposite sides of the river, so no matter where you sit, you can see that part of the experience. The other floats are huge glowing lotus flowers which spray dancing water. The water then has images projected on it from across the lake, and other lighting effects from smaller sprays of water closer in. We are told of the connection all life has to water, a connection as far back as time itself. We are invited to celebrate the spirit of the animals in the night and how we are all one. The music swells and the lighted animal floats come out. They are so beautiful and change colors to the mood of the surroundings in the show. The tone then changes and slows down as various animals are featured projected on the water and the lights and colors change. It’s as if the projections of the animals vaporize into light and water itself. “We Are One,” a lovely song saying just that, begins to play and more animals prance and prowl on the projections. Mother and baby animals are featured as well, which almost made me tear up, being a mom, very little doesn’t make me cry in that regard. We are then told how the animal spirits will join the stars: “Within each of us is a light. A light that shines in all living things. Here, where fire and water, bridge the earth and sky, our light rises on the wind, to join the stars…As we join on this great earth, may you remember the light we share. May we celebrate our bond with the mutual world, and the wonders flow, on Rivers of Light” ( I hope I got that transcription right!) It was truly magical, and as I watched the video again while writing this, I actually did tear up a bit. The music and the message grow on you.
Raise your heart to the sun…We Are One.
Such an important truth, now more than ever.
So, as is usual when something new debuts at a Disney park, many are criticizing Rivers of Light for lacking a “story,” for being too short, or for not really “going anywhere.” While I at first thought there would be more in the story line department (I seem to have remembered us being told specific things about it at the D23 Expo in 2015, but upon reviewing the video with Joe Rohde about the inspiration and the hope behind Rivers of Light, I realized it does exactly what it’s supposed to do). It is not a super explosive nighttime spectacular, it is a gentle, peaceful hug goodnight. A kiss on the forehead from the universe to you. Much as Animal Kingdom as a park is one of discovery and exploration and tiny details around each bend, Rivers of Light is discovering and re-centering our place within our world and indeed our own animal kingdom, before sending us off into the world with a full heart and a clear mind to see the world through new eyes. Too new-age-hippie for you? Well, that emotion is why I love Animal Kingdom so much. It truly is an escape from the every day, from the ordinary, even though it is the closest to the real world of any park we have. As a lover of National Parks and all that dwell within them, the message of Animal Kingdom resonates strongly with me, and Rivers of Light highlights and embellishes that message with beauty and music.
It is not Fantasmic. It is not World of Color. Nor does it need to be. It’s a wonderful ending to a day at a park where the lessons you learn can affect the earth and all in it. If anything, what Rivers of Light has done is make me excited for all of the ‘what ifs’ that exist with the opening of Pandora: World of Avatar. I admit that aside from the bioluminescence promises and the boat ride attraction, there isn’t much I’m looking forward to with Pandora. Ok maybe those weird-looking stuffed animals they showed us at Destination D…But seeing the special effects and the message that comes across through Rivers of Light, I’m excited for the similar messages that Avatar as a movie held. I think it will be able to strike a balance of fantasy (despite Pandora being a “real planet” we are traveling to) and reality of life on earth and preserving that life. Kudos to all of the teams involved, from music, to effects, to the cast running and performing in it, and all the the technical components that brought it all together. I can’t wait to see it again and again.
Here is the Facebook Live video I shared Saturday night for those that want to see the show before they visit the park.
Thank you for reading and watching, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on Rivers of Light, or any of the new Animal Kingdom offerings below.