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The Music of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Night


Rivers of Light viewing area glows with Expedition Everest serving as an impressive backdrop

For many years since its 1998 opening, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was known to guests as a “daytime” park with none of the traditional nighttime offerings that define evenings at other parks (electrical parades, fireworks, fountain shows). In fact it wasn’t just that the park didn’t offer these reasons to stay in the park into the evening, but the park often closed at 6pm before night even fell.

As far back as 2008, Disney had plans to extend the hours of Animal Kingdom by offering nighttime entertainment. The challenge that had existed was that fireworks spectaculars didn’t lend themselves to Animal Kingdom because the noises the pyrotechnics create would upset the resident animals and Disney’s zoologists were adamant that not happen.

Disney’s VP of parades and spectaculars Steve Davison came up with the idea to give Animal Kingdom its very own nighttime electrical parade. This would provide the entertainment needed to extend the parks operating hours and also not disturb the animals in the evening hours.

Davison created the idea for a nighttime parade called Rivers of Light inspired by Japanese lantern festivals. However, Davison’s idea was shelved in 2008 as it posed several challenges for the park. In order to create adequate viewing areas and space for guests to bypass the parade safely, Animal Kingdom’s walkways would need to be widened causing Disney to have to destroy ten years growth of horticulture. But also, thinning that foliage to make way for wider walkways would permanently change the character of the park and its heavily forest-like setting.

But as any good Disney fan knows, Disney never truly trashes a concept. In 2013 Disney announced details for changes to Animal Kingdom with the announcement of the addition of Pandora: The World of Avatar as well as a new nighttime spectacular. In the years since, Disney had experienced the great success of the water-based show World of Color in California Adventure and Rivers of light now took on the form of a nighttime lagoon show.

To create Rivers of Light, Disney looked to the talents of designer Michael Curry, whose Disney resume includes Animal Kingdom’s “Finding Nemo: The Musical,” Epcot’s Tapestry of Nations parade, The Lion King on Broadway, and The Magic Kingdom’s “Festival of Fantasy Parade.”

Film composer Don L. Harper (whose previous Disney work includes the soundtracks to National Treasure, The Lion King 1 1/2, as well as the soundtrack to Tokyo DisneySea’s version of Fantasmic) created the musical score for the nighttime show which also includes an original song by composer Mark Mancina.

Rivers of Light takes the form of an ancient and timeless lantern festival but its title recalls mythology. In ancient times people believed that when animals passed from one world to another, they danced in the sky creating beautiful flowing rivers of light. this is what we today refer to as the Aurora Borealis, or more commonly, the northern lights.

The show begins with two mystical storytellers, Aseema and Aditya aboard vessels sailing across Discovery River. They use the sails of their boats to project Balinese Shadow puppets to portray each of four different animals which act as our animal spirit guides. The african elephant represents earth, the turtle reflects water, the great horned owl signifies the sky and the asian tiger represents fire.

The show is made up of various floating watercraft which contain water and lighting effects. Several of these floats take the form of lotus flowers. After the spirit animals have performed we see the Dance of the Lotus in which Aseema conducts the lotus flowers in a water ballet.

For the fourth movement, composer Mark Mancina wrote the original song “We Are One.” Here we see the tiger spirit traveling through each of the different animal realms such as the sea turtle’s ocean and the elephant’s savanna. Interestingly, This portion of the show incorporates visuals taken from the Disneynature documentary series.

We then return to Don Harper’s score for the final movement titled “Rivers of Light.” This finale is both musically and visually inspired by the transformation scene from Disney’s Brother Bear, which just happened to have been composed by our friend Mark Mancina.

In the Finale we see a barrage of animals projected onto the water screens as well as the appearance of the Aurora Borealis before they fade and the audience sees animals appearing as constellations in the sky. A large expanding temple now emerges from the largest lotus float and begins to blast fire to the beat of the musical finale.

This soundtrack which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in England, features, in addition to its full orchestra, a global selection of instruments, including a duduk (a 2000 year old double-reeded Armenian woodwind instrument), bansuri flute which is a side blown flute from India, a two-stringed chinese bowed instrument called an erhu, Chinese Opera Drums, and Japanese Taiko Drums.

Pre-show Music

Rivers of Light takes place on the portion of Discovery River that sits in the Asia section of the park right in front of the park’s iconic Expedition Everest roller coaster. The fictitious Kingdom of Anandapur (Sanskrit for “place of many delights”) hosts the show and draws its inspiration from the villages in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Given this setting, the Rivers of Light pre-show music which is played as guests find their seats in the show’s custom built seating area, showcases various pieces that evoke South Asia such as John De Kadt’s “Midnight Raga”, “Sunrise at the Ganges” by Karunesh, and “River Pulse” by Anoushka Shankar among various others.

“This is going to be a ceremonial event that will happen on our lake,” said Imagineer Joe Rohde. “It takes the idea of the special nature of the animals that are in this park and turns it into a celebration of the beauty of these animals. It starts simply and humbly, continues to unfold and grow as bigger and more elaborate lanterns appear, and then huge curtains of water and light emerge from the water with animals within them. And ultimately it takes off into the sky.”

Tree of Life Awakenings

The park’s icon, the Tree of Life is comprised of carvings of animals all throughout its trunk. On may 27, 2016 as part of the new evening operating hours at the park, Disney debuted Tree of Life Awakenings. This is a series of four different projection mapping shows on the tree of life that occur every ten minutes in the evening until the park closes.

According to the disney parks blog:

The theme park’s iconic Tree of Life will undergo extraordinary “awakenings” throughout the evening as the animal spirits are brought to life by magical fireflies that reveal colorful stories of wonder and enchantment. High-tech projections of nature scenes take on a magical quality as they appear to dramatically emanate from within the Tree of Life.

The four sequences entitled Rendezvous, Gift Giver, Journey, and of course Disney Medley were composed and arranged by relative newcomer to Disney, Canadian born composer Andrew Lockington whose more notable works include the soundtracks to the films San Andreas and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

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