If there’s one thing Disney’s theme parks are famous for more than cuddly characters and roller coasters it’s fireworks shows.
Disney’s spectacular displays often feature fireworks which explode into elaborate shapes in time with projections onto the monuments in the middle of the park. They aren’t just there for show.
The fireworks displays usually take place just before the parks close so act as an incentive for guests to stay right until the end of the day. The longer they stay, the more they spend on food, drink and merchandise which boosts both revenue and profits as the margins on them help to offset the huge overheads of running the parks. It puts a sparkle on the results of Disney’s parks and resorts division.
In the year to 30 September 2017 its profits were up 14.4% on the previous year to $3.8 billion on revenue of $18.4 billion. It is higher than that of any other division of the Walt Disney Company except for its media networks. That’s just the start.
The science to the fireworks shows stretches far beyond keeping guests in the parks till closing. The more spectacular the display, the greater the likelihood that guests will return, especially since every show is bespoke to each park. They aren’t displays that can be seen anywhere else and that makes them even more memorable. Music is the magic touch.
The fireworks in Disney’s displays are carefully choreographed to stirring soundtracks which are usually lifted from classic cartoons. There is one exception.
The sprawling Disney World complex in Orlando, Florida comprises two water parks and four theme parks. Perhaps the most unusual is the futuristic Epcot which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
Epcot is split into two sections. One half has attractions themed to science and technology and is famous for the giant golf ball-like geodesic dome at its centre. Known as Spaceship Earth, the 180-feet silver structure houses a ride which moves past scenes showing the history of telecommunications. There’s also a space-themed simulator set inside a giant centrifuge which is used to recreate the G-Forces felt when a rocket takes-off.
These attractions cleverly mix education and entertainment which is an Epcot hallmark. The other half of the park features mock-ups of 11 countries in pavilions located around a huge lagoon. Locals work in the shops there which stock traditional produce whilst regional dishes are on offer in the restaurants. It is like a permanent World’s Fair and this theme carries over to Epcot’s nightly son et Lumière on the lagoon.
Instead of being themed to fairytales or films like its counterparts in other Disney parks, the globe is at the heart of Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. Literally.
The show was launched in 1999 amidst the optimism of increased global co-operation that the Millennium was expected to usher in. As the lights go down around the lagoon it begins in dramatic fashion as fireballs are launched from a huge barge whilst fireworks suddenly explode above. It symbolises the creation of the world and that soon floats into view.
The show’s party trick is a globe which is three stories high and 28-feet wide. It was the world’s first spherical Light Emitting Diode (LED) video screen and is controlled by 67 computers in 40 locations.
It is wrapped in more than 180,000 LED pixels which are arranged to form the shape of countries on the globe. They display an inspiring arrangement of scenes starting with cave drawings at the birth of civilisation right up to the journey of the Olympic Flame. Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali and the Dalai Lama all make appearances as the globe rotates. At the same time floating fountains dance around it, lasers fire from the surrounding pavilions and a total of 2,800 fireworks launch from 34 locations around the lagoon.
The finale sees the globe open up like a lotus flower to reveal a giant flaming torch which rises 40 feet into the air as lanterns light up the lagoon and tiny white fireworks crackle in the sky.
It is an emotional tour-de-force with so much going on that it’s not possible to catch it all even after multiple viewings. There are subtle details, like fairy lights lining the surrounding buildings flashing in time to the action, and more obvious touches such as the images on the globe changing as it spins giving a different view to guests watching around the lagoon. However, as stunning as the spectacle is, it is the music which leaves the most lasting impression.
The 13 minute score to Reflections of Earth is widely considered to be one of the most memorable fireworks scores ever written. Indeed, it has been played during presidential inaugurations, the Superbowl Half Time Show and even won an Emmy when it was used in the Millennium coverage broadcast by Disney’s ABC network.
Classically-inspired the theme moves from quiet moments, focused on individual instruments, to rousing crescendos timed to the launch of fireballs and fireworks. It wouldn’t sound out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster and there is good reason for this.
The score was written by British composer Gavin Greenaway whose résumé reads like a roll call of the most well-known movies in history. He has recently conducted the scores for Dunkirk and September’s smash hit Kingsman: The Golden Circle. In the past five years alone Greenaway has worked on Captain America: Civil War, Terminator Genisys, Interstellar, Ender’s Game, Fast & Furious 6, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games.
Although he is usually found conducting classical orchestras for movie scores, Reflections of Earth showed that composing is really where his talent lies. It wasn’t the work of a moment.
“It didn’t just happen. It took a lot of iterations going over and just finding a way to make it work.” Greenaway told Forbes. Indeed, hr says that he even laboured over individual notes.
“At the end of the show there are three chords and I did that about five times with different versions.” He adds that, from start to finish, “I think I probably worked on it for about three months, not continuously but there were six weeks at the beginning before I played Disney a single note. I had already written huge parts of it, I just didn’t want to play it to them.
“Whenever I’m working, once the deal has been made I put the money and the time to one side and it’s just my struggle to get the music to happen no matter how long it takes. I’ll give it my full attention and that’s just the way my brain works.
“So after about six weeks they had heard nothing from me and I went into the studio to demo up a part of it. The first part I demoed was towards the end, called Celebration, and they liked it. So after another few weeks I sent them more.”
Greenaway had surprisingly little to work with and he says this allowed his creativity to run free. At the outset he met legendary Disney show director Don Dorsey who had drawn storyboards for key moments in the show.
“There’s one section which has blue and white fireworks and I just had some pictures so I said ‘I think it sounds like that’. It was good because it meant I had to imagine and make it all happen without the fireworks. I had sketches and rough timings. Don would tell me about the images on the globe but I didn’t see any final images. They made most of the images timed to the music.”
Greenaway says he started by experimenting on the piano and refined it over time. “I would tap away on the piano, leave it for a few hours, go for a run or a drive and then come back to it. For me, anything good I have ever written has been the result of polishing. You come up with an idea that is OK and you hone it.
“It’s like moulding with clay. I don’t get caught up in the details just the overall picture and then polish it. That’s why I like to play the piano and then go off for an hour or two. You’ve got to hold the whole thing in your head all the time and keep chipping away at it. When I find a shape I like I insert proper notes, writing on a manuscript all the time. Once I know what the notes are, I don’t know the exact orchestration but I know the shape of the thing, I start to work on the computer.”
He says that the fireworks were created to fit the music once it had been finalised. “Until that point there was lots of leeway. We could make it 10 seconds shorter or longer. At various times it was different lengths.” In contrast, there is far less flexibility when writing music for films as the structure, sentiment and timing of each scene is carefully controlled by the director.
“What’s great about the fireworks shows is that you are really making a structure and you’ve got to pace it so when you get to the climax you feel like you have earned it. You think ‘this is where I want to be now’ and then you get your pay-off. One thing I love about music is that sense of journey from one place to another which you can do over five beats or you can do it over an hour. It’s a structural thing and I enjoy making those structures. Of course in the movies you can’t do that because it is done for you.”
Ironically, although Greenaway took to Reflections of Earth it was down to luck that he got involved with it thanks to a chance meeting with one of his father’s contacts. “My father is retired now but he was a songwriter and towards the end of his career he started doing advertising jingles. He did a number of fairly high profile campaigns (including ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ for Coca-Cola) and along the way he got to meet this young whizz-kid called Hans Zimmer who was programming synthesizers.”
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