Disneyland's 'Fantasmic!' returns after fire — without a dragon. Here's a first look

For more than three decades, Disneyland’s nighttime show “Fantasmic!” has lighted up the Anaheim park’s Rivers of America. A story about our dreams and nightmares centered heavily on Disney’s animated works, “Fantasmic!” has long boasted an assortment of projections, pyrotechnics and fireworks.

In 2023, however, a key portion of the show caught fire. A climatic battle between Mickey Mouse and Maleficent in her 45-foot, fire-breathing dragon form brought the show to a halt when the latter became engulfed in flames. Viral video propelled the story to national news, and “Fantasmic!” was placed on an indefinite hiatus while Disney’s live entertainment team re-imagined the show.

“Fantasmic!” returns Friday. It will feature a few key changes, including the return of an extended segment focused on “Peter Pan.” It also won’t have a dragon.

Yet the apex of the “Fantasmic!” will still revolve around a battle between Mickey and Maleficent, who in images is seen towering over the star of the show, her figure conjuring an array of lighting, projection and pyrotechnic effects. Maleficent, with scepter in hand, will ascend to a height of 35 feet. Firework effects will appear to shoot from Mickey’s hands, and Maleficent will set the river ablaze.

“The whole theme of the show — good versus evil, and Mickey’s magic and imagination overpowering the evil — it’s important to have that peak in the show,” says Disney Live Entertainment’s Tobi Longo, who has been working on “Fantasmic!” for nearly all of its three-plus decades. It’s Disney’s longest-running so-called nighttime spectacular.

“Maleficent is still going to be spectacular,” Longo says. “She’s on the stage longer than she used to be. We’ve added new pyro effects, with really cool projections and lasers. The river is still going to light on fire. … As much as we miss the dragon right now, it’s still going to be a spectacular scene.”

“Fantasmic!” is a key piece of Disneyland’s live entertainment, which the park this summer has been leaning heavily upon.

With key attractions such as the Haunted Mansion down for refurbishment and the opening of log flume ride Tiana’s Bayou Adventure not expected for a few months yet, Disneyland has sought ways to turn the park into more of a theatrical experience. To wit: A new parade featuring Pixar’s recent films has launched in Disney California Adventure as part of Pixar Fest.

It joins the contemporary Magic Happens parade in Disneyland, which currently houses a nighttime fireworks show based on Pixar. Fireworks fans also have additional ways to take in the evening illuminations, as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge has become a prime viewing spot thanks to the addition of music and a light storyline that feeds into the lore of the land.

The return of “Fantasmic!,” however, will further the impression that all of Disneyland is a stage, a place where not only guests can play at heightened versions of themselves but the park can also spring to life and envelop us in stories. “Fantasmic!” makes use not just of the Rivers of America and its centerpiece island but also such large-scale attractions as the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Sailing Ship Columbia.

Longo, currently the show director for “Fantasmic!,” says the team began workshopping the new scenes in mid-December, meaning she’s been on an overnight work schedule for the last five months. In an industry where live productions can have relatively short — or repeatedly on and off runs — Longo was asked how “Fantasmic!” has endured.

“I think it reflects the wonderful combination of theatrical technology and classic Disney,” Longo says. “We’ve used elements that back in 1992 nobody had ever seen — mist screens, projection on water, lasers and lighting a river on fire. All of that was so new. It’s amazing to me that 30 years later, those elements are still as shocking and exciting as they were in 1992. It combines the charm of classic Disney, live performance and spectacular technology. And we have to remember that probably 75% of the guests at Disneyland have never seen a live entertainment show.

“I’ve done a lot of shows, performing at Disney as a choreographer and a director. And I’ve done a lot of shows on the outside. I don’t think I’ve done anything that combines all of those elements.”

Of course, big universal themes don’t hurt, either, and “Fantasmic!” in about 25 minutes touches on the power of imagination, romantic idealism and inner demons. Characters are presented in different guises throughout — large-scale projections give way to more serene, waltz-like moments on individual boats.

And that says nothing of nostalgia.

Take, for instance, the afternoon parade “Better Together: A Pixar Pals Celebration.” Colorful floats that nod to recent films like “Luca” and “Turning Red,” the latter complete with a larger-than-life Red Panda Mei, are contrasted with smaller, more playful units that touch on “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” There’s an underlying theme of friendship, and show director Robin Trowbridge argues that parades — and the theme park approach to live entertainment in general — have a unifying power.

“It’s such a great channel to take people in other worlds and just let them live in fantasy for a while,” Trowbridge says. “The parade itself — there is such a level of anticipation. You see a parade for 25 or 30 minutes, and you are being taken in and out of different stories. You get to relive your youth, or you get to share your stories.”

“Fantasmic!” serves a similar role, weaving in and out of the history of Walt Disney Animation, especially now that “Peter Pan” has once again returned and has replaced a scene referencing “Pirates of the Caribbean.” With the Lost Boys in tow, Peter and Wendy will take on Captain Hook, climaxing with a swashbuckling battle.

And while the dragon may be missed, Longo offers a hint that we haven’t seen the last of Maleficent in her fire-breathing form.

“We’re excited for something to come back, and we’re in the works and working on it,” Longo says. “But I think what I’ve done with that scene — that good versus evil and that battle between Maleficent and Mickey — is so spectacular. We all loved the dragon, and we’ll keep working on things, but there’s not much I can say about it.”

Theme park theatrical productions, as “Peter Pan” is evidence, are always available for tinkering.

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