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REVIEW: “Rivers of Light” successfully adds artistry as new nighttime draw for Disney’s Animal Kingdom – but it’s not for everyone

in Disney, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Theme Parks, Walt Disney World

Back in 2013, Disney COO Tom Staggs gave us a “first look” at plans for an expansion to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He also introduced the idea of the park being a full-day experience with the addition of nighttime attractions and entertainment. Staggs stated with confidence that they would “produce an experience unlike any other ever created”–an experience specific to Animal Kingdom.

At the center of this plan was a new land called Pandora. This land was to bear most of the weight in carrying Animal Kingdom through the evening hours, but other attractions were announced as the supporting props for the tentpole of Pandora. One of them, a show destined for Discovery River, was intended to help guests “cap off their day” in the park. We now know that show to be “Rivers of Light.”

While all the “supporting attractions” named by Staggs came to fruition, “Rivers of Light” struggled to take off. It was scheduled to debut nearly a year ago, but the nighttime spectacular was plagued with problems that prevented its official opening–that is until last night. On February 17, “Rivers of Light” officially opened to a public that had waited and waited in anticipation.

WATCH HIGHLIGHTS FROM “RIVERS OF LIGHT”:

THE GOOD

To understand and appreciate “Rivers of Light” is to understand and appreciate the park for which it was made–a park whose overarching mission is to showcase the beauty of nature and give guests an experience that will connect them to it. “Rivers of Light’s” role is to support that mission in a format that is entirely new to the park, and it doesn’t just do that. It actually nails it.

Through the combination of live performance, floating sets, projections, fountains, music, and color, “Rivers of Light” tells the story of our symbiotic relationship with animals and the planet we share with them. The entire show takes on a metaphysical tone as it speaks of animal spirits and forces of nature. In this, it also invites us to put aside our personal devices for a moment and consider esoteric concepts such as a collective soul that unites all life on the planet. In truth, it is a powerful message that resonates with those that are able to hear it.

The first facet of “Rivers of Light” that grabs is the visual aspect. The opening scene of lotus blossoms gliding serenely across calm water is somewhat hypnotic, and the show only builds from there. It introduces the elements of fire, water, color, light, and shadow in ways that fit perfectly like jigsaw pieces. In doing so, “Rivers of Light” somehow evokes a sense of reverence for life throughout the show.

Rivers of Light

This may be most true during the portions that project images of animals, particularly those of parents and their young. The imagery has a powerful emotional impact. It taps into something primal. It might be that it speaks directly to the part of us that feels connected to nature, gently reminding us that all life on Earth moves in cycles and that we are part of the story. Whatever it is, the presentation is stunning visually, inspiring a true sense of awe.

But what about the music? Let me put it this way: Whereas what we see in “Rivers of Light” tugs at the heart, what we hear throws it down on the mat and holds it in a Half Nelson until it taps out. In fact, the music is so strong that it is arguably the best element in the show. It is “La Nouba” meets “The Lion King,” effortlessly alternating between ethereal, operatic mezzo-soprano lines, tribal rhythms and African choirs. This breathtaking soundtrack has the ability to hold you in aural rapture and carry you through a series of movements, reaching not just one climax but at least three.

Rivers of Light

There is another aspect to this show that I sincerely appreciate, and that is the use of technology to inspire a relationship with nature. I suppose there is a minor sense of irony in this, but it is a quirk that I can applaud. In approaching the issues of care and conservation from this angle, the integrity of the message remains intact. Nature is allowed to remain “natural” because creatures and their environments are not disrupted for the purposes of entertainment.

On a more pragmatic note, this show is great because it provides seating. This one point alone makes me want to break out into a hallelujah chorus. Finally someone at Disney realized that at the end of a long day, you don’t want to be standing cheek to cheek with strangers that smell like the animals you just visited at Rafiki’s Planet Watch [My apologies to anyone who has stood next to me during “Wishes” or “Illuminations”]. Unlike most other evening spectaculars, “Rivers of Light” offers feet a respite from the intense hours of walking and bodies a little more room than the mobs on Main Street. There are no Cast Members yelling at people to stay out of traffic paths, and there are no worries that a kid will be lifted onto the shoulders of a parent and obstruct views. So many problems are solved with the simple design of seating, and I could kiss the person kind enough to bring it to this show.

Rivers of Light

THE BAD

I can honestly say that I, personally, have no complaints about “Rivers of Light.” I love this show from beginning to end. However, in an attempt to provide a balanced review, I feel it only fair to present some points that may affect how others perceive the presentation.

“Rivers of Light” is not a show with a straight-forward narrative. There is no clear plot with a definitive conflict and resolution. There is neither a hero nor villain. In fact, it is entirely possible to sit through the whole show and come out on the other side wondering what the heck it was all about. That is because this particular show is meant to be more experiential and less chronological, delivering its message in an abstract form. It’s a quality that some may find problematic. For that reason, I’m throwing it out there for consideration.

Rivers of Light

Additionally, “Rivers of Light” is a show that lacks the grand scale of other nighttime spectaculars at Disney Parks. Most people are quick to notice the lack of pyrotechnics, and some invoke the name of “World of Color” to belittle “Rivers of Light.” In my opinion, these arguments aren’t fair.

“Rivers of Light” has to exist within a framework that the other nighttime shows don’t, meaning it has to provide entertainment without disrupting the sleep cycles of the animals that do live in the park. For that reason, I’m perfectly content with “Rivers of Light” being a more intimate experience without over-the-top pageantry. But if you are someone who needs fireworks and projections on buildings that are 189 feet tall to be impressed, this particular show will disappoint you.

Rivers of Light

THE TRUTH

In my opinion, “Rivers of Light” is a fantastic addition to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It is a gorgeous piece of showmanship–given to us by Disney Imagineering–that fits beautifully within the context of a very unique park.

Once Pandora–The World of Avatar opens this summer, “Rivers of Light” will be overshadowed by the headlining attractions in that area, but this was always going to be the case. Ultimately, though, I believe that “Rivers of Light” holds its own as a viable nighttime attraction and excels as an artistic display. Your mileage may vary, though, so keep it in mind.

21 Comments

  1. Jeff Williams

    This review is so well written. Well done!

  2. Cassie

    I was lucky and got a last minute Fastpass to the second showing that night and I thoroughly agree with everything you said. I loved the show and thought that DWI did an incredible job incorporating the different elements of the performance and tying them into the message of the show. I really enjoyed it and definitely plan on seeing it many more times. However, just based on the people around me in the stadium I could tell that the show didn’t live up to some people’s expectations. To each his own, I suppose.
    I also laughed at the part of the review about the seating, because that is the most relatable thing ever and why I also love Fantasmic.

  3. Don

    Great write up JeniLynn although I don’t share your sentiment about this production. Here are my 2 cents:
    It’s not that it didn’t look nice, it did. But the visuals where very uneven. The dreamlike quality of some of the projections on the waterscreens sometimes clashed with the water lilies. The lillies at times where majestic and at times a 80’s disco missing the disco Yeti.
    The mini parade with the 4 animals where also a clash of styles. Then the boats where the actors where very hard to see, again beautiful looking but clashing with the rest that was on offering.

    The song, very Disney/Broadway, was again out of place with the rest of the soundtrack (and I hated it).
    Then there is the amazing artwork from when the show was announced and the fact this production was so delayed and hyped up by Disney that my hype was trough the roof. The finally of the show didn’t resemble the artwork (it wasn’t even close) and it didn’t live up to the hype. It over promised and under delivered. On top of that, what is presented is redundant. Most of what you can see on the projections can be experienced in person if you want to take the time and enjoy the animal exhibits in this amazing park.

    Yes it’s still worth to watch (unlike the slapped together Jungle Book show) but it won’t keep me in the park at night often and I hope it gets a ton of work to make it as good as this park deserves.
    And although the seating is great a backrest would at least make the seating a bit more relaxing. Again, just my 2 cents.

    1. MykeTV

      Had to stop reading this comment, too many typos/grammar errors.

  4. Kristin

    Is the seating only for fastpasses, or is their enough seating for everyone and what time did you have to go to get a seat? Thanks.

    1. JeniLynn Knopp

      There is seating for people with FastPass+, the dining package, and people in the stand-by lines. We recommend trying to secure a FastPass for the show.

  5. Stewart

    This review absolutely nailed it…perfect. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  6. Arthur

    I completely agree with this review. Saw it last night and I loved it. Beautiful show.

  7. Mary Neal

    Beautifully written review! It sounds like a wonderful, very appropriate addition to Animal Kingdom.

  8. Felicidade

    Is there a area for wheelchairs?

  9. William

    I’m sorry, this show was boring. No story line or plot point. No grand finally. The transitions between songs were so disjointed. You could tell where cuts were made but they still wanted to play 30 seconds of the cut music. Listen for it next time. On my way out of the theater a boy turns to his dad and says “Dad that was boring” and dad said “it’s ok, we’re seeing the Star Wars show tomorrow.”

    The worst part of your review is this line:

    ““Rivers of Light” tells the story of our symbiotic relationship with animals and the planet we share with them. The entire show takes on a metaphysical tone as it speaks of animal spirits and forces of nature. In this, it also invites us to put aside our personal devices for a moment and consider esoteric concepts such as a collective soul that unites all life on the planet.”

    No it doesn’t. Not at all! There is no story. And that part about esoteric concepts is just made up bull.

    1. DAK Lover

      I wish they had incorporated Disney songs/themes from Tarzan, Jungle Book, Pocahontas… just to name a few.

      This show is not for the “Disney Fan”. It belongs at Sea World or Busch Gardens.

      Technically, it’s beautiful… for the first couple of minutes, but I was ready to leave.

      It lacks the heart and story telling that Disney is so well known for.

      This was a “One time is enough” extravaganza.

      The show moved me… right out of my seat and back to Wishes, Fantasmic, and Illiminations.

  10. tony

    This does not live up to Disney Standers when it comes to Story. Projections are Good of course. Its missing that Umph , Its Average at best. Pandora Land of Avatar is going to have to Save it for Animal Kingdom.

  11. tony

    The Tree Of Life Projection Show is Better then River of Lights easly

    1. DAK Lover

      👏👏👏👏

  12. Camille Kirk

    Thanks for an excellent and informative review! Your description made me think that this show sounds much more like poetry than narrative. While a narrative needs a plot and a climax, poetry does not. The beauty of poetry is the emotion that it evokes, and in some cases, plot can actually get in the way of emotional expression.

    It is true that Walt Disney loved storytelling and his storytelling ability was a large part of his success. But I think that in a theme park world full of stories, there is certainly room for a little poetry.

    Also so glad about the seating. One of the reasons Fantasmic is my favorite show is because I can sit back and relax and enjoy it without worrying about people coming to fisticuffs around me about blocked views and space encroachment.

    We will be at Animal Kingdom in July and I can’t wait to see Rivers of Light. Sounds like it will be a great work of poetry.

  13. Joe

    This show does not have Disney IP, it does not have fireworks, nor does it have a concrete storyline. Those are the reasons that I love it, for it strives to be truly original, and the same can be said for the park that they put it in. This show, to me, is an abstract amalgam of water, light, fire and shadow, all cradling some of the most amazing animal images, both intimate and grand. It is a show that is as unique as the WDI that designed DAK: Joe Rohde.

    The stadium setting is beautiful, the visuals are stunning and the musical score is luxurious, again brashly avoiding the need for any standard Disney music at any point. It is a true WDI original, in the same vein that Illuminations is for Epcot, except that Rivers of Light is made to speak to the natural world. And this is something that I have always believed about DAK: it is as true to its original concept as Epcot was in its heyday. And that is why I find this show as wonderful and daring as it is. Sometimes the message does not have to be complicated or drawn out. It can be a simple statement that lives within true artistry. That is what this show is.

    Great review JeniLynn.

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  15. tony

    Cant Use Epcot as a excuse . they had no choice but to be orginal , they have no major characters to base the show on , In 2000.
    Animal Kingdom on the other hand has Storys they can add to exisiting show. to bring out the Umph. Also show doesnt need fireworks to be good.

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