Look, I’m just gonna say the thing we all know.
Rivers of Light is boring.
In case you don’t know, because you spend time outside and not on Disney Park’s YouTube page, Rivers of Light is the new nighttime show in Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. Disney spent a shit ton of time, resources, and sweet sweet Olaf plush doll money to get this show up and running about a year after they said they would.
And it’s neat. For like, a minute. And then it’s boring.
There’s not a story, the music doesn’t grab you or go particularly well with the visuals, and there’s only so long floating air colors can entertain an entire stadium packed with parents of small children who have been crying all day over their spilled Mickey Bars that some bitch in a wheelchair knocked out of their hand so she could beat them to the line for Frozen Ever After.
I’m sure Disney knows that Rivers of Light is a bit of a Fail Whale, but they also can’t just pull the plug so easily when Disney built a 5,000 seat water-based amphitheater specifically for this show.
But Armchair Imagineer Leah has the solution.
That’s right, you read the title. Moana. Moana. MOANA.
Disney has regarded Moana as having somewhat underperformed at the box office because it didn’t match Frozen or Zootopia’s success. But that’s rather unhelpful thinking for Disney for reasons I’ll get to later. Not to mention that Moana still made $600 million in box office grosses during a time when they had to compete with nerdy family friendly juggernauts Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Star Wars: Rogue One. But the inability to match Zootopia and Frozen’s numbers, according to the Disney Dish Podcast, may have led to them axing the rumored Moana Volcano Coaster.
But people still love this movie. They love the characters, the story, the visuals, and, especially, the music. So, although a transforming volcano coaster sounds, um, totally awesome, Moana is an IP (intellectual property) meant to be turned into live entertainment. Using Rivers of Light‘s giant water-based amphitheater, Disney could create a mixture of the Broadway-show-emulating-experience of Disneyland’s Hyperion Theater (previously showing Aladdin, now showing Frozen) with the stunt spectacular experience of Fantasmic!
Now, how, you ask, do you put a 90 minute film about a hero’s odyssey across an anthropomorphized ocean complete with shape shifting heroes and giant lava monsters onto a stagnant water surface?
Surprisingly, the technologies necessary already exist in Disney Parks (past and present), as well as other places in the country.
We start off with shadow puppetry – already in Rivers of Light before the show starts. A voiceover of Grandma Tala gives the opening backstory about Maui stealing the Heart of Te Fiti.
Then we have a young Moana – a short adult dressed in young clothing like in the Frozen Live stage show, or we could do a puppet if we wanna go full toddler look – “playing” with the water. She’s standing on the edge of the island (either a permanent structure or a float-in set). For this, we sample some of the special effects Disney already does in Rivers of Light, but also employs in World of Color and even Splash Mountain. The colors change, water jets “jump” around, fountains sprout around her, and we’re introduced to the Heart of Te Fiti. Grandma watches prominently from the mountain in the background. Moana’s Dad shows up, grabs her, tells her to stay away from the dangerous water (maybe the water “rises” angrily with threatening red colors around them), and then we launch right into “Where You Are,” which will be a straightforward yet spectacularly choreographed dance number. Coconuts get tossed, structures get built, “kids” play, hula dancers dance, and it’s just a ton of fun.
Plus, there can be a fun little trick when Moana changes from a kid to a young woman. Child Moana begins to dance with the water in synch with her Grandmother, and on the lyric “The water is mischievous, HA! I like how it misbehaves,” the water screen (frequently used in Fantasmic!) “knocks” Moana back and hides her completely as Grandma continues to sing, “The village may think I’m crazy, and say that I drift too far, but once you know what you like…” and as the lighting indicates the passage of time, the water recedes on the lyric “well there you are,” and we see a fully grown Moana dancing in synch with her Grandmother.
We then have a truncated two or three line version of the “everything the light touches is our kingdom” speech Chief Tui gives to Moana. The song finishes with Moana dancing in determined harmony with her people, but Moana finds herself drawn to the water during the final bars of the song, and the end of the song launches straight into “How Far I’ll Go.” This song would be most effective if sung live, but a sound system that allows for that might not be possible in that space. But at the very least it should be pre-recorded in such a way that suggests they might be singing live to heighten the experience.
You’re starting to get the idea, right? We play out the story mostly the same, except we cut out a large chunk of the second act. We skip the part with the coconut vinylmation ferbie doll attack as well as the entire sequence that takes place on the Island of Monsters. Not that those parts aren’t doable, they just would make the show too long, and they’re not all that necessary for the story. (…Also I kinda hate the song “Shiny”). But anyway. We get to have a lot of fun doing “You’re Welcome,” as well, with the help of a charismatic actor/dancer playing Maui. This dance number can include some of the black-light effects mixed with puppetry utilized in the “Under the Sea” number of Hollywood Studio’s Voyage of the Little Mermaid.
Disney is great at impressive choreography on land. We know this. So here’s how you do the tricky water stuff:
We Know the Way
After Grandma Tala tells Moana about their voyaging ancestors, and Moana hits the drum in the cave (suggested by lighting, not an actual cave, or we could eliminate the “cave” entirely and just have Grandma Tala’s words conjure the vision), we see the ancestors sailing behind a large water curtain. This technology has been around for decades; I saw it myself as a little kid at a local garden’s outdoor theater. And now? The technology can do some pretty amazing things.
But how do we have a ship sailing across an ocean on a man-made lake? This one could actually be a really cool effect. And it comes courtesy of surfer dudes.
I’m talking about surf machines:
Now, obviously this technology may have to be applied a bit differently, since it’ll be a matter of sailing a raft instead of riding on a surfboard, but I feel like with a little hydraulic creativity, Imagineers could come up with something really effective.
Just imagine at the end of the show, when Moana has restored the Heart of Te Fiti and returned to her island, we once again see voyagers through the water curtain as the opening notes of “We Know the Way (Reprise)” play. Except this time, as the song crescendos (and the lyrics begin), the voyagers burst through the water curtain, to reveal Moana, her family, and the rest of Motunui sailing on the ocean once again. The entire cast lip synchs the song as they sail, and a water projection shows a Monterey version of Grandma swimming with them. Moana climbs onto the mast of the center ship, Captain Jack style, and the show ends on the final note of “We Know the Way (Reprise)” with a single spotlight on her, leading her people from the mast of the ship, wearing her “Chief to Be” outfit. Epic, right?
Know Who You Are
Almost as epic as her face-off with Te Ka will be. Te Ka will be done entirely through puppetry, and will basically be a larger, more intimidating version of the people-like puppets from the extinct Tapestry of Nations parade in Epcot.
Once Moana realizes that Te Ka is what Te Fiti has become without her Heart, the ocean literally parts for Moana as she walks over to Te Ka in one of the most beautiful moments of animated cinema.
Well, I think we can. I hope we can. I’m not sure how the technology works, but maybe we could at least apply the idea in a way that would work in an outdoor arena.
Have you ever experienced Posiedon’s Fury in Universal Studios Orlando? I don’t recommend it. It’s long, cheesy, and they don’t let you sit. But there is one part where they use hydraulics to make it appear as if the sea is “parting” for you to walk through.
Now, the conditions for Poseidon’s Fury are obviously very different from the ones Imagineers would be faced with in the Rivers of Light amphitheater. Poseidon’s Fury‘s stunt takes place in a small tunnel. But if we can isolate a small portion of the giant water theater and use some optical illusions, using hydraulics, you could clear away water the audience doesn’t realize is barely an inch deep, use a water curtain or screen to emulate the ocean “parting,” and have the actress walk across to meet giant puppet Ta Ka, while she lip synchs “Know Who You Are.” Once Moana restores T’Fiti’s heart, the panels on the Ta Ka puppet can reverse, to show a greener, friendlier, happy T’Fiti. Or Ta Ka can “break apart” and the T’Fiti puppet can be quickly placed in between to seem as if she has burst out of Ta Ka’s shell. Or the Ta Ka puppet can be built around the T’Fiti puppet. There’s a lot of possibilities here, is my point. With a bit of creativity and experimentation, when matched with Moana’s music and the right lighting, this moment could be incredibly moving.
Speaking of moving –
I’m really excited about the possibility of my absolute favorite moment of this movie…
I am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)
Amid all the water stunts and choreography, this can start as a quiet, surreal moment where the actress playing Grandma Tala appears wearing a bioluminescent costume, a la Claire Danes at the 2016 MET Gala.
As the song progresses, the ancestors appear again behind the water curtain, and then the water curtain comes down to show the boats also bedecked in bioluminescent glow.
As Moana finds her strength in her identity within her family and her people, the water screen goes up to show a projected “silhouette” of Moana diving for the Heart of T’Fiti, the music swells, the lights bathe the audience with the warmth of the bioluminescence, but as Moana “comes up” from the water (she stands triumphantly on her boat and the water screen goes back down), the water curtain abruptly goes black/dark blue, hiding the ancestors and Grandma Tala (who has left while the water screen was up), and the music stops. It is dark and quiet on the ocean. Moana is alone. Until we hear the cry of a Hawk, and Maui appears next to her, having returned.
Yes, this is all going to be very expensive. Disney has a harder time getting sponsors these days, since companies can easily spread the word on Twitter or YouTube instead of relying on paying massive amounts of money to Disney just to say their name. And when Disney has to pay a lot of their own money for a new attraction, they get a little…
But Disney really has to learn to understand the Costco Chicken Principle. Even if you lose money on a specific “item,” if that item is spectacular enough to drive more people to your “store,” you’ll make more money off that item in the long run.
Right now, Rivers of Light isn’t inspiring me to spend money on an Animal Kingdom admission ticket. And even if something else (mainly Flight of Passage) does, I’m still happy to leave before dinner and not spend more money in the parks. For something like this Moana show, I might fork over money for a dinner package that guarantees me a good seat. Not to mention, it promotes an IP that could sell a lot of plush. And that’s Disney Park’s business plan these days, isn’t it? Disney can’t get someone else to foot the bill, so they’ll use intellectual property to promote both the ride, the movie, and the corresponding merchandise? Find me a 10 year old girl who would not, after seeing badass Moana control the water, transform Ta Ka into T’Fiti, and faux belt her face off, immediately beg their parents for a Moana costume? And maybe a kayak rental? I mean, that’s not ideal for already budget strapped parents, but it’s a good reason for Disney to spend a lot of money to make this show as mesmerizing, spectacular, and genuinely moving as it could be. And then everyone else gets an amazing nighttime show. Everybody wins.
I’m certainly not against making shows that have nothing to do with any specific IP, as Rivers of Light tried to do. But I am against a show that fails to portray a cohesive story with real emotional resonance. Rivers of Light tried its best, but it just didn’t work out. Moana’s story is primed and ready for this type of entertainment. And not to pull the “WWWD” card, but Walt Disney knew about the power of promoting his newer movies in the park. You think Peter Pan‘s enduring merchandise prowess, despite the fact that the original movie itself isn’t all that popular today, has nothing to do with how much people love Peter Pan’s Flight? Don’t forget, Walt named his Florida Project’s castle “Cinderella Castle” partly to promote Cinderella. And, according to Jim Hill of Disney Dish Podcast, today she’s still one of the top merchandise-selling princesses. I find it unlikely this is a coincidence. If Disney wants Moana to do Zootopia numbers during its second life on digital streaming? They should put her in the parks in a serious way.
And then, you know, pay me lots of money for my brilliant idea. I’ll even write the whole script for a stay in Cinderella’s Castle. Call me, Disney.