The Technical Side of Harmonious

After much delay, Harmonious, originally targeted for spring 2020, finally debuted at the end of September, days before the Disney 50th Anniversary. The show is an ambitious bid to match the nighttime spectaculars of the other Disney parks. There is a lot to cover, so I would like to break the show into two aspects, the technical and the story. I would like to start with the technical aspects first. Addressing smaller components first then the larger elements.

Fans feared that this show would have fewer fireworks than Illuminations. This fear is misplaced as the show has more fireworks and they are not even at the final iteration yet. The use of fireworks is much more evenly distributed throughout this show. People, however, might feel like there are fewer due to so many other aspects that draw attention. The absence of the flame throwers definitely creates a void that should drift out of memory in a few years.

The sound mixing in the show also felt slightly askew. At points, the orchestration overpowered the vocals and it got cocophenous during transitions in other parts. There is also trouble hearing other parts. This possibly could be attributed to it being recorded in a studio and they need some time to dial it in for a crowded open air arena. I hope they will touch up the sound over the next month of showings.

With Harmonious, Disney desired to bring Epcot up to par with the night time shows of other parks.  It became clear that projection/screens are the new standard for nighttime spectaculars within Disney. Epcot presented a problem in that it had no surfaces, with viewing area, to project onto. The “natural” nature of the lagoon wouldn’t support a world of color type installation. The proposal that they hoped addressed these shortcomings were the barges that have now become the centerpiece of the World Showcase Lagoon. 

One of the elements of the show that was a surprise to me was the sharpness of the laser projections. Previously these projections had to rely on smoke to be clear which was always an unreliable medium. The water or smoke that emanates from the barges allow for much more dependable and neat images. The lasers over the hill barges are less effective and have a layering/replicating effect due to the smoke and water from the other barges. Regardless they are used effectively throughout the show. 

On first showing I was not sure if the water adds much beyond it providing a place for the lights to play off of. On repeat viewings I started to notice more attempts to do things with the water but didn’t feel dialed into that sweet spot yet. An oft used experiment was to form shapes with solid streams but they didn’t always translate. During “Out There” it formed the arches of gothic architecture of Notre Dame but it felt disconnected since the picture underneath was of stained glass. If the image blended with the shapes the water was creating it would read better. That segment did make me think it could recreate a credible Sydney Opera House. Brave’s segment had the most effective utilization of the water features. The water was often moving and creating a kinetic joy that matched the music. Then at other times the water shot straight up and lighting turned the barges into a forest, simple but effective.

The stargate was an odd choice for this show. Ever since the first concept art I had a fear about an homogenous viewing experience from around the World Showcase. The central water screen is two dimensional and they oriented it to the centerline of the world showcase. This means that due to the American Gardens Theater one of the straight on views is greatly obstructed. Guests viewing from Norway/China or the UK are getting poor views of the centerpiece of the show. The even spacing of the 4 double sided barges at least creates a consistent viewing experience all around the lagoon. I’m curious if the desert viewing area near the International Gateway or the fireworks cruises are even worthwhile now. Another aspect is Spaceship Earth, at one point it lights up in the show, according to the live stream, but from the recommended viewing area you would have no chance to notice this since it’s behind you. 

Apart from the viewing concerns, the stargate was an interesting choice for the show. The design team wanted to reference the globe from Illuminations; even going as far as to project the globe at one point. The water screen projections are nice but if you are off center you will see multiple images emanating from the american pavilion stage. The amount of jets around the base and circumference of the ring create lots of planes for the lights and lasers. The 4 arms felt redundant, the stargate had enough jets and lighting, they often just mirrored those on the ring instead of adding to it. The Coco segment was the only part where I felt the central arms complimented the show. I was happiest when they were down and off to the side as then they didn’t obstruct the view. 

The hill barges were the best design and well suited for a show in the Epcot lagoon. The side panels covered the internals effectively creating a backstage where certain show elements originate from. Knowing that they were going to be shooting water and fireworks everywhere they made the wise choice to use LED panels instead of flat screens for projection. They don’t have to worry about visual interference from weather or their own show elements. It also allows for much crisper and detailed visuals. The arms don’t feel entirely necessary but work a bit better on the hill barges than they do on the stargate.

Would the set up fit better in Animal Kingdom?

Overall I think the barge design was an industrious build for Epcot’s nighttime show. The central (Stargate) barge is my biggest miss of this setup, but the four side barges are very effective. A combination of those with the Illuminations globe would have been wonderful. We have to deal with them 24/7 in the lagoon and I don’t think we have seen them in day mode officially yet. I  think that scaled down versions of these would have worked much better in Animal Kingdom. The lights, water and heavy reliance on strong visuals would be more impactful since fireworks are discouraged near animals. It was proven with Rivers of Light that the water screens needed to be generated closer to their intended projection plane and these would address that concern. Also, the Rivers of Light stadium was built with directional viewing in mind so the issues with angles wouldn’t have mattered.

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