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The psychology behind Disney and other theme parks’ fireworks shows

Cranky after a day at the park? Eye-catching Disney and Universal fireworks displays keep people around longer and may help them leave in a good mood.
Hundreds of guests watch the Happily Ever After fireworks show in front of Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The stunning 18-minute show features more lasers, lights and projections than ever used before in the park. And characters and scenes from more than 25 Disney films appear on Cinderella’s Castle through a state-of-the-art projection system. [Tampa Bay Times (2018)]
Hundreds of guests watch the Happily Ever After fireworks show in front of Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. The stunning 18-minute show features more lasers, lights and projections than ever used before in the park. And characters and scenes from more than 25 Disney films appear on Cinderella’s Castle through a state-of-the-art projection system. [Tampa Bay Times (2018)]
Published Nov. 26
Updated Nov. 26

Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest weeks of the year at Florida’s theme parks, second only to Christmas week. After an expensive, crowded day at Walt Disney World or Universal, the parks spend thousands on nighttime spectacles of fireworks, lasers and digital imagery for a “last kiss good night.”

Although the exact cost is confidential, industry estimates range from $30,000 to $50,000 per fireworks show. And the parks blow that money every single night. Experts say it’s a smart investment.

It’s all designed to make you forget how annoyed you were when the kids started crying in a 120-minute ride line. And these days, the pros can turn to gee-whiz tools like drones and digital imagery, helping parks keep the wow factor without spending as much on expensive fireworks.

The displays create a reason to linger. Take the giant fireball in Epcot’s recently retired IllumiNations show. Or Cinderella’s palace, which turns into a wintry castle dripping with icicles for the Frozen princesses.

Cinderalla's Castle is turned into an ice palace with the aid of more than 200,000 LED lights and it "snows" on Main Street USA for Christmas at Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy Walt Disney World [Walt Disney World]

“The real intent is to keep the guests in the park longer,” said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive and retired professor from the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. “It’s all psychological. You are depending on repeat business so you’ve got to make it feel worthwhile. Usually they feel like they paid for the roller coasters and the attractions and the shows. But this kind of feels like something that’s free.”

For the show designers, night sky is a blank canvas to paint with color and light. But they need a soundtrack.

“The first order of business is to select the music,” said Alan Bruun, director for the new nighttime spectacle Epcot Forever. "It’s how we are going to tell this story because music is the emotion. "

Bruun estimates more than 200 people helped create the 11-minute Epcot Forever show, a year in the making. The London Symphony Orchestra recorded the score and there were audio and production designers. During the show, there are pyrotechnic crews, boat drivers and kite pilots when water scooters roar across the lagoon, pulling six sets of light-up kites that change colors to the beat.

The new nighttime spectacle “Epcot Forever” debuted in October above Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon. The temporary show replaced the award-winning IllumiNations, which was retired after 20 years. This show has fireworks, lasers and colorful glowing kites that change colors in time with the music. [DAVID ROARK | Walt Disney World]

Despite its name, Epcot Forever is temporary. The show, which debuted in October, is taking up the slot before the park unveils “HarmoniUS,” a high-tech show promised as “the largest nighttime spectacular ever created for a Disney park.” It will feature massive floating set pieces, custom-built LED panels, choreographed fountains, lights, pyrotechnics and lasers.

New tools include 3-D projection systems that can make ghosts dance across the balconies of Hogwarts Castle or turn the facade of a building into a new object. The last few years have also brought experimentation with drones that make use of hundreds of little flying lights to create pictures in the sky. And Epcot debuted LED kites that soar overhead in Epcot Forever. They not only change colors, they emit sparks during their final pass.

RELATED: New Epcot fireworks show reflects a park in transition

The score for the Soarin’ attraction, a hang-gliding simulator that’s one of Epcot’s most popular rides, marks the arrival of the kites.

“Because we knew we were going to incorporate those kites, we knew we didn’t have to be all sort of heroic and bombastic. You know, music to blow up things by,” Bruun said. “The kites give us a more lyrical section that floats and soars and is smooth.”

LED lights, drones and video projections give parks more bang for the buck.

“In the long run, technology is cheaper than people,” Dickson said. “The initial investment is more, but over time, once you’ve made the investment in tech, it’s cheaper.”

In June 2018, Universal Studios in Orlando opened the park's new Cinematic Celebration nighttime show around the park's lagoon. It has hundreds of fountain, lights, lasers, fireworks and video digitally mapped onto the surrounding park features. The high-tech show made it look like dinosaurs were running loose and Minions were dancing overhead. [UNIVERSAL ORLANDO]

Michael Aiello, senior director of entertainment and creative development at Universal Orlando Resort, has overseen live shows and nighttime spectacles within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

In June 2018, he unveiled the new lagoon show his team spent 18 months creating called Universal Cinematic Celebration. It uses pyrotechnics, lasers, projections, dancing fountains, moments from its most popular film franchises and danceable pop songs. The projections send a T. rex running through the New York section of the park. Harry Potter’s patronus spell is conjured in the sky to fend off a Dementor. A troupe of Minions from Despicable Me dances overheard.

“The entire show’s story is a culmination of the experiences the guests have had throughout their day, rather than being montage-based,” Aiello said at the time. “It’s like a last kiss good night.”

That show is on hold until Jan. 6 while the park puts on its nightly Macy’s holiday parade and a castle show at Islands of Adventure that wraps Hogwarts in Christmas images, singing ghosts and students riding broomsticks.

Hogswarts castle looms beyond Hogsmeade at Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's. [Tampa Bay Times (2017)]

Universal has struggled to find the right nighttime shows, Dickson noted, because its parks are perilously close to nearby neighborhoods, making pyrotechnics tricky to manage within city limits. Lasers and projections have allowed the park to create memorable images with limited pyrotechnics.

All of Disney’s parks offer fireworks shows except Animal Kingdom, which bans pyrotechnics so as not to disturb the animals in its zoolike park. Instead, there’s an enhanced light show called Rivers of Light: We Are One, with pretty floating lotus blossoms, animals and images projected onto enormous water screens.

The Rivers of Light nighttime show at Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World recently added enhanced graphics. The show is a visual mix of water, fire, nature and light all choreographed to an original musical score. [Walt Disney World]

At the Magic Kingdom, the stunning 18-minute Happily Ever After show, which debuted in 2017, features more lasers, lights and projections than ever before. More than 25 Disney films are represented on Cinderella’s Castle through a state-of-the-art projection system.

Separate-ticket events at Disney get even more fireworks, including a new holiday show hosted by Minnie Mouse. And this year for Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Disney introduced a show with a wider swath of fireworks across the park, also using projection effects and lasers.

James Silson, director for the Halloween spectacle, said the addition of animation “felt like we were creating our own Mickey cartoon.”

Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is the star of the new Halloween fireworks show at Magic Kingdom. The show uses projection effects, lasers, lighting and fireworks during Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a separately ticketed event. [DAVID ROARK | Walt Disney World]

The fireworks explode into candy and happy faces and pumpkins, Easter eggs the audience loves to find. Projections on the castle wrap around it, visible from the side of the building, not just in front.

“We’ve done animation before but these were done in a 3-D approach so they had a lot of depth and look very real,” Silson said. "The castle doesn’t go away, it changes and morphs with every segment, and holes and portals open up. So it’s kind of a magic trick, really.”

RELATED: What’s new at Disney in 2019 for the holiday season

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