Fantasmic is a nighttime spectacular at Disneyland, Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, and Tokyo DisneySea at Tokyo Disney Resort. It combines various elements, like fire, water projections, lasers, and fireworks, for a show that is loosely about the power of imagination. In all versions of the show, Mickey Mouse fights various villains (in his dreams) in a battle of good versus evil. Fantasmic! is more about the visuals along the way than a tightly scripted plot. While each version of the show is dramatically different, the photography tips for each are essentially the same. We prefer the Disneyland version of the show, although the radically different Tokyo DisneySea version is a close second. The version at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a distant third. This guide covers and includes photos from all three versions of Fantasmic!
Since this is the first (and likely only) article about Fantasmic! on this blog, even though it has nothing to do with viewing or photographing the show, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a fun tidbit that I assume other Disney fans will find interesting. Up until its late stages of development, Fantasmic! was known as Imagination! The name was ultimately changed because of concerns with being able to trademark the generic Imagination name, whereas Fantasmic (a made up word), could be easily trademarked. The Imagination! name got so far along in the process that Disneyland even made up marketing posters with Imagination! as its name. I like the name Fantasmic!, but I’ll admit that I get chills when I pop in the Fantasmic CD and the opening line “imag-in-ation…imag-in-ation…” plays.
Okay, on with the more relevant information for successfully viewing and photographing Fantasmic!
The first thing to determine when planning to photograph the show, is figuring out where to sit for the best view of Fantasmic. In Disneyland and Walt Disney World, this is pretty simple. Fantasmic’s viewing area is set up like a normal stage show/theater, with the action taking place mostly on a stage, and in the water in front of that stage. In Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the seating area is literally an amphitheater, with benches for seating. Disneyland’s show on the Rivers of America is a bit different since its seating blends into the waterfront walkway, but the principle is the same. In both cases, my preference is as close to center as possible, and near the front, but not all the way at the front.
At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, front and center should be pretty easy to locate. Note that the very front will get you wet, and slightly off-center is no problem. My personal preference would be to go toward the Sorcerer Mickey or Scar side if can’t get dead center because Mickey appears towards that side during the dragon’s appearance, but it doesn’t really make a huge difference. Although we’ve never done the dining package, the seats reserved the dining package are all the way to the far right of the seating area. I would not consider these spots to be ideal (and it’s likely that you can see some backstage ‘action’ from here), but since it’s a theater, they won’t be bad, either.
Disneyland’s seating can be a little trickier. Here, my favorite spot is directly in front of the show control area at the back of the seated area. To give some reference, this is directly in front of Cafe Orleans. The entire seated area at Disneyland is a great location for photography. The very front of the standing area, directly behind the seated area is also great. There are other good and “trick” spots to avoid long waits, but while these spots offer good views, they don’t offer as good of views for photography, since they’re fairly far from the action, making close-up photos of the characters incredibly difficult unless you have a telephoto lens and a teleconverter. These spots include the River Belle Terrace seating area, the elevated Pirates of the Caribbean bridge, and directly behind the middle light tower (see #44 on our 101 Disneyland Tips for more info). Again, these are good last minute spots, not good photography spots.
Fantasmic is incredibly popular in both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland, and waits for it can border on asinine (we’ve seen people camped out over four hours in Disneyland). If there are two shows on any night during your visit, go to the second showing! This is especially true in Disneyland, because the earliest people can arrive for the second show is when the first show clears. Expect a significantly shorter wait for the second show, plus better seats. On both coasts, you can arrive about 45 minutes in advance of the second show during most seasons and still get a prime spot for photography.
As for Tokyo DisneySea’s Fantasmic, we haven’t yet seen it enough to give our take on the “best” spots. Unlike the Disneyland and Walt Disney World versions, it’s a 360 degree show, but with the main action oriented towards the park’s entrance. As near to here and as close to the water is what we thinks worst best as far as our experience goes. The only “trick” spots of which we’re aware are the Bellavista Lounge in Hotel Miracosta, and the top of the highest close-to-the-water fort in Fortress Explorations. I thought this latter spot offered a great and unique last minute vantage! (The photo above was taken from this location.)
Although Fantasmic has a lot going on in it, from lasers to fireworks to projections, I think shots of the characters will be what most photographers will be after. I usually try to incorporate some of these other elements in my character shots to make them more than just ‘standard’ character portraits. The downside is that these photos can be very difficult to capture, requiring the right knowledge and equipment.
For point and shoot users or DSLR owners without much technical knowledge, my best recommendation is to put your camera in “sports” mode. There is a lot of fast action in Fantasmic, and this will keep your shutter speed high and prevent you from having blurry photos. However, it will also result in a lot of noise and dark photos for much of the show. I would probably only focus on brightly lit scenes (such as when the dragon appears), as you are going to end up with a lot of garbage shots. Remember, this is an imperfect solution to a complex show to photograph.
If you are comfortable with your cameras settings (or willing to learn), you have better options. If you don’t have basic technical understanding of the elements of exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO), I highly recommend reading Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson before reading any further trying to take better photos. If the paragraphs that follow don’t make sense to you, start with that (and other photography books) and then come back.
In terms of gear, you’ll want to use the longest zoom you have. For me, this is a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR. A lot of you might have a 55-250mm lens that you got as part of a kit with your DSLR, and that is a perfectly fine option. In some cases, I set aside my 70-200 and opt for my Nikon 28-300mm VR. It’s not as good of a lens, but the extra reach can help. Even @300mm, I had to crop some of these shots fairly significant. The significance of good gear for photographing Fantasmic (or a really close viewing spot) cannot be understated. Some of my photos pale in comparison to those who take pro-grade wildlife and sports lenses to the parks for Fantasmic. Ideally, I’d pair this teleconverter with my 70-200mm for a ‘best case’ set-up. That is, until I win the lotto and can afford a $10,000 wildlife lens! (Might need to start actually buying lotto tickets if that’s the plan…)
You do not need a tripod for Fantasmic. You don’t even need a monopod. Your shutter speed will need to be relatively fast to freeze the action in the show (remember, a tripod only eliminates camera shake induced by the photographer…it doesn’t freeze the things you’re photographing!) and this faster shutter speed itself will counter the effect of user induced camera shake. At least, in most cases (and even then, I recommend not using a monopod because the limited gains don’t outweigh the inconvenience).
Start by putting your camera in spot metering (Nikon) or partial metering (Canon). Basically, this is the metering mode that takes the very center of the frame, rather the whole scene or the center-average. Since you’re photographing characters and they’ll have spotlights on them, you want to meter off of these characters, and not average that metering with the dark areas behind them. If you stay in the default metering mode, prepare for blown out characters. I usually take this a step further by also dialing in -.7 as my exposure compensation. It’s easy to brighten dark spots than to recover blown highlights. You’ll also want to adjust your focusing mode to servo (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon), which will ensure that you’re continuously focusing. Again, moving characters, so you want to be tracking focus on those movements.
As for exposure settings, I like to go with aperture priority with a wide open aperture (f/2.8 on my lens), with auto ISO, setting a base, and a minimum shutter speed. Reasonable minds may vary on the use of aperture priority mode, and not every camera has as solid of auto ISO options as Nikon DSLRs, but I think it’s the best option.
For minimum and maximum ISOs, go with the minimums and maximums your camera allows. I’ll explain why later. A lot of the activity in Fantasmic! happens fast, so I recommend setting a minimum shutter speed of 1/100th of a second (sometimes I go slightly faster, sometimes slower). You still might get some blur with this, but you will get a lot of sharp shots, and this will prevent you from constantly maxing out your ISO and ending up with too much noise in your photos.
The reason for these settings instead of, say, full manual mode or shutter priority, which might seem like the intuitive options is simple: the “Maleficent Dragon Scene.” I find this to be, by far, the best scene in Fantasmic! for photos. This is especially true in Disneyland, where Murphy the Dragon is truly a sight to behold. This scene in all versions is also much brighter than most of the rest of the show (thanks to fire) and its intensity changes during the course of the scene. If you use manual mode, you’ll blow shots in this scene unless you’re really quick with settings. Shutter priority is better than manual mode, but it doesn’t allow for the dynamic auto ISO settings, meaning you have to preset your ISO, which I prefer not to do. For the dragon scene in particular, you’ll either have to change your ISO setting you there’s a chance you’ll inadvertently have your ISO too high, and have noise when no noise was “necessary.”
This scene can be difficult to photograph not just because of the settings required to tackle it, but because smoke and heat can obscure the scene. The heat can make Mickey blurry (sometimes this looks cool and adds to the scene), and smoke can drift in front of the scene and cause problems, too. Challenging photography, indeed!
For example, with the photo above, I was in aperture priority with my aperture at f/2.8, my minimum shutter speed at 1/125th of a second, my minimum ISO at 100, and my maximum ISO at 6400. For most of the show, my shots were at ISO 5000 or above. However, for this shot, the ISO plummeted to ISO 360! That meant a photo with far less noise, but otherwise “ideal” settings. Unless I was ridiculously quick to change my settings, if I shot this in shutter priority, I would’ve ended up with a higher aperture (which wouldn’t have been a real benefit) and a higher ISO.
This is the main reason why I recommend aperture priority and auto ISO for Fantasmic! Hopefully with this information, you’ll be able to take great shots of Fantasmic!, too. Just remember, you’re bound to get some (many) bad shots, so don’t get discouraged…just be ready for the dragon scene!
If you’re interested in improving your Disney photography, check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
For updates on Walt Disney World, the latest news, discount information, and tips, sign up for our free monthly newsletter!
Have you tried photographing Fantasmic? Had any difficulties or have you been mostly success? Any other tips you can offer? Hearing from you is half the fun of these articles, so share your thoughts and any other tips you might have in the comments!