Lighting is an integral part of the Disney theme park atmosphere and experience. The parks come alive at night in large part as a result of meticulously arranged lighting schemes. Without this attention to detail in terms of lighting, at night the parks would be dark and lifeless instead of feeling moody and looking beautiful. (Updated November 30, 2019.)
As an avid photographer of Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and the other Disney theme parks, I am very cognizant of lighting. The quality of light is usually the difference between a mediocre photo and a great one. Because of their moody and atmospheric lighting, the Disney parks are the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel when it comes to photography.
With this photo essay, I share my thoughts and perspective on lighting at the Disney Parks. This was originally published several years ago, prior to the opening of several new attractions, lands, and other interesting uses of lighting in the parks. With the debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, I’ve decided to update this post, as that’s a particularly interesting (to me) use case of lighting at Walt Disney World and Disneyland…
There are a few types of lighting in the Disney Parks. I’d generally subdivide the categories into show, functional, and atmospheric. While I’m segmenting into these categories, there’s usually overlap. The parks masterfully blend forms of lighting.
Let’s quickly define each of these terms in turn…
First up is show lighting. This is typically hidden, with the goal that the source is not noticed by guests. Indirect show lighting is used widely in every Disney theme park to provide much more lighting–and more complex lighting–than “on-stage” light fixtures ever could.
Show lighting is common on things like building exteriors and rock-work. These are aspects of the parks that really pop thanks to show lighting, but that you wouldn’t typically see illuminated in real life. (Hence the show lighting often being hidden.)
A good example of this would be Cinderella Castle, where the light fixtures around the Castle provide very little illumination.
Rather, the Castle is illuminated by dozens of LED lights located around the perimeter of Cinderella Castle and at the edges of the moat that shine onto the Castle.
Think about it–mountains aren’t normally lit by giant spotlights nor are you generally illuminating the exterior of your house, yet Disney is doing exactly these things, and it’s something for which guests generally suspend disbelief because it’s accomplished in a hidden and seemingly natural way.
It’s also often seamlessly blended with functional and/or atmospheric lighting so it doesn’t appear that show lighting is coming out of nowhere.
While out-of-view show lights are incredibly important to the way the parks look at night, just as important is the functional and atmospheric lighting. Both of these typically take the form of on-stage light fixtures that are visible to guests.
Functional lighting is the less interesting of the two, and is straightforward lighting to illuminate paths and other guest areas for the sake of safety and easier navigation of the parks. As with everything Disney does, functional fixtures are themed, but the main goal of the lighting itself is, as the name suggests, functional.
Finally, there’s atmospheric lighting. This also usually takes the form of fixtures visible to guests, and these lights do provide some illumination to the parks (basically by virtue of their nature), but they’re not the primary form of lighting anywhere.
However, this is more for thematic enhancement than anything else. Atmospheric lighting provides texture and mood. For me, this is the most interesting form of lighting.
While most never get posted here on the blog, atmospheric lighting is one of my favorite photo subjects–along with other nerdy and seemingly insignificant things like door handles, trash cans, signage, anything with fonts, and other supplementary decor flourishes.
Light fixtures may not be of interest to 99% of theme park fans but they are really important to the overall tone, theme, and ambiance of each land in the parks. If you clicked this post with a sense of great enthusiasm, you clearly are wise and have exceptional taste…or are geek just like me, depending upon one’s perspective.
I haven’t always been this keen on light fixtures. One of the great things about Disney parks, I think, are that they work on a multitude of levels. What’s also great is that there is a community of incredibly passionate individuals who focus on a range of diverse topics.
As we’ve visited the parks more and more, I’ve become interested in the academic and artistic side of the parks, and have read books and blogs to greater understand and appreciate the work of the Imagineers.
One such blog post that really blew my mind is this two-part post concerning the Lighting of the Magic Kingdom on Passport 2 Dreams. Until reading that, I had never paid a ton of attention to light fixtures in the parks. Sure, some especially beautiful ones caught my eye, but I never went out of my way to investigate lighting choices.
Now, I actively make a point of looking at all light fixtures I come across in the parks. For this post, I thought it would be fun to take a look at a range of light fixtures from Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. Consider this “Disney Parks Lighting 101,” as it just scratches the surface, but hopefully gives you a newfound appreciation of the lighting in the parks!
As a crash course in theme park lighting, I think it probably makes the most sense to jump in, bouncing around with some examples of atmospheric lighting in the parks.
Here’s an illustration of the Cinderella Castle point made above. These beautiful lamps are found around the perimeter of Cinderella Castle, but quite clearly, they are not what is illuminating the Castle itself.
The most recognizable and well-known fixtures in any Disney theme parks are the light street lamps on Main Street, USA.
These are brilliant in their simplicity, and probably stick out in your memory despite not being nearly as lavish as other lighting around the parks. Quite simply, these are one of the defining features of Main Street.
Continuing on Main Street, we have Casey’s Corner and its iconic lighting.
No matter which is your “home” set of parks, you have probably seen these stained glass Coca-Cola lamps. That is, unless your home park is Shanghai Disneyland where *gasp* Pepsi is served instead of Coke.
Rancho del Zocalo has a seating area with a variety of lights like this that really give the place a romantic vibe.
I think there’s a reasonable chance that when Disneyland Paris was being constructed, its budget for light fixtures was greater than the entire budget for the construction of the Walt Disney Studios Park.
A variety of beautiful stained glass lamps like this are found in Cable Car Bake Shop on Main Street.
As with Disneyland Paris, no expense was spared on lighting at Tokyo DisneySea.
The light fixtures here in Aquasphere Plaza are used to enhance mood, theme, texture, and the overall beauty of the park.
Most lighting in attractions is accomplished via hidden show lights.
The Tail Light Cavern at the end of Radiator Springs Racers is a rare instance of lighting being a star of the show.
Last time we were there, I counted 7 different types of light fixtures. These large lights on the ceiling of the lobby are my favorite.
In the photo above, the sun is acting as nature’s light fixture to shine through the beautiful frosted glass on the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland, but there’s also an interesting gas light inside a lantern reflector case.
How light is reflected is incredibly important in the parks.
That fact is demonstrated spectacularly in this landscape shot. Notice the lone lamp in the middle of the scene? Now notice the light on the ground? That single lamp has its light diffused and reflected down to the ground, giving incredible texture to otherwise ordinary pavement.
This type of lighting is used a lot in Frontierlands and Adventurelands the world over, where lighting can be used to give an added wrinkle (almost literally) to the aged look of the buildings and environments.
Speaking of Adventureland, if I had to pick one land in all of the parks worldwide that I think has the most interesting and lavish light fixtures, it would be Adventureland at Disneyland Paris.
The gorgeous lights above line the path leading into the land, are incredibly ornate, and despite being atmospheric, are also providing most of the land’s illumination.
These light fixtures also provide a lot of texture to Adventureland, which is not particularly noteworthy as that’s the case with the lighting in every Adventureland.
What’s more significant is that they also establish the tone. The entrance to Adventureland in Disneyland Paris is themed to One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folklore.
This is conveyed via the fixtures, which are at once opulent, exotic, regal, and slightly foreboding.
There’s clearly a sense of adventure, but it’s not rugged or lighthearted, as is the case with other Adventurelands.
Jumping to another Adventureland that is very different, we have Hong Kong Disneyland. These fixtures really intrigue me, and I also find it fascinating how stark of a departure they are from the style of Disneyland Paris.
On the spectrum of Adventurelands, Paris and Hong Kong are at opposite ends.
There are a lot of unique and well done lights in Hong Kong Disneyland’s Adventureland, but they are used very sparingly for actual illumination.
The land is dark at night and feels much more like untamed jungle than the other Adventurelands, most of which are more cheeky about “adventure.”
Along the lines of Adventureland, there are three lands that are each very different, yet very similar in how they handle lighting.
These are Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea, Morocco at Epcot, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at both Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland.
Although those might ostensibly seem light years apart, they’re all actually quite similar, with details pulled from Marrakesh in Morocco.
Each of the ornate light fixtures in this photo of Arabian Coast at Tokyo DisneySea is unique. Just look at the texture they provide to the walls here.
Much like Arabian Coast, Morocco in Epcot’s World Showcase has a variety of textured light fixtures.
It’s really not difficult to see the parallels between the two. Morocco in World Showcase is a romanticized version of the real thing, and Arabian Coast is simply a slightly cartoonified version of that.
Where the comparison might start to lose people is with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. To say it’s worlds away from Morocco or Arabian Coast would be an understatement. It is literally set on the planet of Batuu in a galaxy far, far away.
However, once you get past the fictionalized, off-planet setting, it’s pretty easy to see the parallels.
There’s a reason we refer to Star Wars Land as “Space Morocco.” Imagineers who designed Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge took research trips to Marrakesh and the design bears this out in terms of its archways and other architecture, textures, and lines.
With all of that said, it’s arguably the light fixtures of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that bear the strongest resemblance to Morocco.
These fixtures are one of the many subtle ways that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge conveys depth. The lighting style is clearly lifted from Morocco, but also utilizes the design language of the Star Wars films.
In addition to that, there’s a diverse array of fixture styles depending upon where you are within the land, which gives Batuu a tremendous lived-in sensibility. It’s these little things that make a big difference–Galaxy’s Edge is a good exemplar of this, but it’s far from the only land employing this technique.
Even if most guests don’t actively notice these differences in fixtures, it’s a sort of subliminal messaging that says a lot about the inhabitants, history, and backstories of each land.
That just touches upon some of my favorite light fixtures around the Disney theme parks. Hopefully this taste of the different light fixtures has piqued your curiosity, and the next time in the parks you’ll take some time to inspect the lighting. Trust me, it (probably) seems less weird if we’re all staring at the lights and taking photos of them!
Do you pay attention to the light fixtures in Disney theme parks? Do you have any favorites? If you don’t normally pay much attention to them, does this post give you a new appreciation for the lights of the Disney parks? If you have any other questions or comments, please leave them below.