Last night, April 9, 2019, Disney Parks Blog broadcasted the last livestream of the Epcot fireworks spectacular, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
I had found out about a week ago through #DisTwitter that Disney would be broadcasting the show and had set a reminder on my phone so I didn’t miss it. At 8:55, I tuned in while relaxing in bed, my wife talking on her phone alongside me.
As Jim Cummings’ narration (which I’ve always thought sounds like his characterization of Chief Powhatan from Pocahontas) introduced the show, shivers ran across my body, bringing goosebumps. At the end of his brief monologue, as he “blew out” the torches that flickered around World Showcase Lagoon, I felt a hitch in my throat and a lone tear ran down my cheek. By the end of the last movement of the fireworks symphony, that single tear had been joined by a great number of its siblings on the streaked canvas of my cheeks.
As I was plugging my phone in for the night after the show had concluded, Andrea asked me why I’d gotten upset about a “fireworks show.” I’d been asking myself the same question. I am someone who doesn’t like change; I’d had a difficult enough time when we recently sold the couches from our living room, which we’d had since we got married eight years ago.
After a second thought, it finally came to me enough for me to explain it to my wife:
IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which was originally known as IllumiNations 2000: Reflections of Earth, premiered on October 1, 1999 as a part of Walt Disney World’s Millennium Celebration. During this celebration, which was headquartered at Epcot, Disney pushed the message of global unity as the Earth entered a new century and millennium (it was during this time that the infamous Mickey wand, accompanied by the year 2000, was added to the top of Spaceship Earth). In 2001, the Millennium Celebration gave way to the 100 Years of Magic celebration, which honored the 100th birthday of Walt Disney, celebrated primarily at the then-Disney-MGM Studios park. At this time, the 2000 was dropped from the Epcot fireworks show, which continued being the park’s firework show for the next two decades, complete with the inferno barge and the globe screen.
My family traveled to Walt Disney World during both the Millennium Celebration and the 100 Years of Magic. I was in seventh and eighth grade during those trips and have vivid memories of seeing IllumiNations, Epcot’s Tapestry of Nations/Dreams parade(s), standing beneath the “twelve story sorcerer’s hat” that stood in front of the Chinese Theater at MGM, and watching the “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah Day” commercials on our resort television (I still have a special place in my heart for the Fastpass character from these commercials, which was used to educate guests on the new ride reservation system that had rolled out in late 1999). In fact, we visited Walt Disney World the week between Christmas and New Years of 2001; when we arrived at MCO, the airport was empty, as were the Disney parks as a result of the recent September 11th attacks in New York City and Washington DC.
It was during these two trips that I really fell in love with Walt Disney World. I was getting to the point in development where I was starting to lose the childhood fantasy that Disney magic was real, and instead had to make the conscious decision to suspend my disbelief. Rather than enjoying the parks on the level of the belief I was really floating through a real Caribbean town being sacked by pirates or traveling through time to witness the development of communications technologies, I was starting to appreciate the thematic elements, storytelling, and technological innovations that the Disney parks had to offer. This was also during the early days of the Internet, when fan sites featured pictures and summaries of the Disney parks; this allowed me to do research at home in Michigan, silently begging my mom to not pick up the phone and thus interrupt the thirty-second loading of the Disney webpages.
One afternoon, my freshman year of high school, I had mentioned a recent trip to Disney World to my computer science teacher, Scott Dudka. He mentioned his love of Disney World as well, and brought me two discs: one a CD-ROM of the Disney World Explorer, a computer program that served as an interactive guidebook of Walt Disney World during the early 2000s; the second a burned copy of the soundtrack for the Millennium Celebration, including the music for Reflections of Earth and the Tapestry of Nations (I still have this burned CD in my car today).
IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, both the show and the Gavin Greenway-composed soundtrack, reminds me of those early trips to Walt Disney World that I actually remember. They were the trips that caused me to become a fan of the parks and resort, to desire conducting further research as a young teenager who lived 1200 miles from the parks. And because of these two trips, I became a lifelong Disney fan (to the point where, shortly after taking our trip in 2000, I created my first email address, Disneyobsessor2000@yahoo.com). This passion inspired me to continue research, write my own Disney guidebooks for fun, participate in the 2007 Disney Marathon weekend, to listen to Disney podcasts, and begin writing the occasional article for Orlando Attractions Magazine. The publishing of these articles led to being “discovered” and offered a book deal by Theme Park Press, out of which came A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World, which examined the historical inspiration behind Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise and other popular Magic Kingdom attractions. The success of this book would spawn two more books, A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World Volume 2 and Volume 3.
While I had believed I was done writing for a few years after the waning interest in this series, my wife encouraged me to do research about the Disney connection to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which has let to a new book series, Walt Disney and the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. The first book in this new series, Great Moments, which focuses on the creation of the Illinois Pavilion and its attraction, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, will be available in time for the Fair’s 55th anniversary on April 22nd (keep an eye on Amazon and KisteTheHistorian.com, as well as my Twitter, @HistTourWDW for up-to-the-minute news on publishing).
None of this would have happened if not for those two trips to Walt Disney World in the winter of 2000 and 2001.
So while I was sad last night that IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth is coming to an end, I was actually feeling emotions for the end of an era. Not an era in Epcot or Walt Disney World, as I think we can all agree that the Epcot of the past decade has not had a true identity, something that will hopefully be altered with the released plans for the major overhaul coming over the next few years. Rather, I was recognizing the end of an era in my own life as a Disney-obsessor. And I’m not sure that the feelings I was experiencing was sadness, but rather an overwhelming feeling of gratefulness, of seeing where I’ve come from over the past twenty years. I’ve gone from that naïve middle school kid to a published author. This year has become a new era in my relationship to Disney, one in which I find that Disney World and Disney history is no longer an obsession, but rather has become truly engrained in who I am to the point where I can live my passion daily.
And for that I am very grateful and blessed.