“Imaginary!” Returns to Disney’s Hollywood Studios | Arts stories + interviews | Orlando

Over the past two and a half years, we’ve been watching closely the slow recovery of live entertainment at Walt Disney World, as shows that were closed due to social distancing lagged behind theme park rides in reopening. I’m happy to report that one of Disney’s last large-scale productions finally resumed showings earlier this month for the first time since 2020, bringing with it a long-awaited set of improvements — not to mention hours for its cast.

But while the revival Imaginary! At Disney’s Hollywood Studios it was certainly welcome news, what I observed during its reopening to the public proved that the residuals of the pandemic continue to wear down the magic.

In case you are not used to Imaginary!This amazing mixed-media nighttime show starring the magician Mickey has been running at the former Disney/MGM studios since 1998, and is based on the original show that debuted at Disneyland six years earlier. The Anaheim version is shown on and around Tom Sawyer’s island in Frontierland, where the audience in the living room from the beach around Frontierlands watches the rivers of America. To embody Orlando, a custom amphitheater with over 7,000 bleacher seats surrounding a mountainous island was created, trading some of the West Coast wonders for more relaxed viewing.

Unfortunately, Florida Imaginary! It felt subpar compared to its California cousin. The Disneyland version has enjoyed promotions for decades, unlike WDW. Particularly problematic was the middle section of the show, with inappropriately paced sequence re-enactments of scenes from Pocahontas It actually dated around the turn of the millennium (as opposed to the exciting pirate battle staged atop the Sailing Ship Columbia at Disneyland). Although it is still regularly packed with crowds, Imaginary! The long overdue update has been celebrated by fans with the news that it finally returns on November 3rd with new scenes and effects.

The good news is that refurbished Imaginary! It looks great and sounds great, thanks to state-of-the-art lighting and audio hardware that make fog displays and dialogue clearer and clearer than before. Pocahontas still offers a musical, but its sequel is now divided into a montage of stunts and songs — featuring Aladdin’s acrobatics, Mulan’s martial arts, and Elsa’s icy affection — that move even better. The highlight of this new work – and perhaps the entire show – is the moment when Moana walks on water while reciting Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words. It appears that the underwater passage that makes this electrifying effect possible was originally intended for Mickey, but was discontinued by former CEO Michael Eisner due to religious overtones.

Although vastly improved on many levels, the new model Imaginary! Flawless as I had hoped. The predictable sequence of floating bubbles near the start still leads to snooze despite the addition of new characters, and Florida’s skeletal dragon puppet still pales in comparison to “Murphy,” a fully animated effect in the Anaheim finale. (And don’t get me started on the sleek steamboat that replaces Mark Twain from Disneyland.) Imaginary! Finally bridging the quality gap and becoming a good companion to its older brother.

The bad news is that while the show itself is much better than it used to be, the experience of attending it — at least based on my reopening night observations — has taken a huge step backwards. The Disneyland cast members seem to have the art of crowd control down to a science, efficiently managing thousands of viewers amid working attractions. On the other hand, even though there is a dedicated stadium with ample parking space, you can watch WDW’s Imaginary! It always involves investing more time and effort than seems necessary.

Thanks to Disney’s loss of corporate know-how during pandemic layoffs and persistent staffing shortages, operational issues are becoming increasingly apparent at the parks, and never more so than on November 3. Halfway through the performance, I fully expected to see a large crowd figure for the 8pm performance by mid-afternoon; The only people who seemed surprised by the disorganized crowd were the overworked cast members, who relayed vague or contradictory information, and whose efforts to disperse the anxious audience were largely ignored.

After seeing such a mess more than three hours before the early performance was scheduled to start, I completely gave up on the premiere and paid a visit to Batuu instead, before joining the queue for the 9:30pm performance about an hour before showtime. By then, the line stretched all the way down Sunset to Hollywood Boulevard – which at least allowed me to catch the evening projection while waiting. Although the mob was mostly organized, there was minimal communication, even when we failed to start moving onto the stage until 10 minutes before the curtain. In the end, the show started 20 minutes late, which meant it was past 10:30 p.m. when tired families were finally pushing their young children through the turnstiles of the closed park.

I expect the difficulties of this reopening day to wane as pent-up demand from die-hard fans dissipates, and I still recommend attending the after show (or booking a table service food package) in order to enjoy Imaginary! With minimal frustration. But my firm impression from the show’s anticipated revival is that Disney needs fewer walkie-talking managers talking among themselves, and more front-line workers empowered to actually help guests.


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