Luminous Symphony of Us Review: Fitting Fireworks for EPCOT?!

Luminous The Symphony of Us is the new nighttime spectacular at Walt Disney World, and fourth fireworks show in as many years to grace the skies above World Showcase, following EPCOT Forever, Harmonious, and IllumiNations. This review discusses how Luminous compares to its predecessors, other blockbuster nighttime spectaculars, and whether it’s a worthy addition in the spirit of EPCOT Center.

Before we get started, some basics about Luminous The Symphony of Us. The first is that, for whatever reason, there is no colon in its title. It’s not Luminous: The Symphony of Us. There was at one point–and you might still see some marketing collateral that contains a colon, but Walt Disney World officially dropped it for reasons unknown. Regardless, we’ll just call it Luminous.

Walt Disney World has touted Luminous as bringing guests together around World Showcase Lagoon and shining a light on the shared experiences that connect people across the globe. Luminous features a dazzling display of fireworks, fountains, lights and music–making the new nighttime spectacular the perfect finale to a memorable day at EPCOT. At least, according to Disney. But they love everything they do, even Genie gets glowing marks from the company itself. This review will cover whether we share that positive sentiment about Luminous.   

Disney also had effusive words for the former fireworks, and Luminous never was intended to exist. Its predecessor, Harmonious, opened on October 1 for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, but that wasn’t the original plan–it was supposed to debut over a year earlier. More importantly, it was never meant to end with the conclusion of the 50th.

Harmonious was meant to be the permanent replacement for IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, and it was budgeted accordingly. While we’ll never know just how much money was spent/wasted on creating and maintaining Harmonious during its unexpectedly brief run, we do know that its duration was meant to be measured in years rather than months. I fully expected it to be around for Walt Disney World’s 60th Anniversary in 2031.

With its water tacos and Stargate, high costs, and visual blight, Harmonious quickly became WDW’s own mistake on the lake. It came to a surprise ending with the 50th, and EPCOT Forever returned (again) in its place as Walt Disney World worked on another new permanent nighttime spectacular for EPCOT. Credit where credit is due–I didn’t expect Disney to admit, even implicitly, that Harmonious was a massive mistake, much less act on that so soon and build a new show.

This Luminous review will attempt to answer several questions: does this nighttime spectacular work? Is Luminous a worthy replacement to IllumiNations or Harmonious? Is it a fitting fireworks show for EPCOT and World Showcase? There are probably other things it’ll address, but those are my starting points when sitting down to write this Luminous review.

Let’s start by taking a look at Luminous in isolation, discussing whether it works and sharing my photos from the new nighttime spectacular…

The presentation obviously differs, but Luminous is similar to a montage nighttime spectacular you’d see in one of the castle parks. Which is to say that it features visuals and songs from a variety of movies, and ties them together with a narrative or thematic through-line. In the case of Luminous, the connective tissue is humanity–our shared experiences as people across cultures. (It sounds similar to the abandoned “Spaceship Earth: Our Shared Story” plan.)

To tell this shared story, Luminous is made up of a series of movements representing common themes of the human experience. The soundtrack features new arrangements of iconic Disney hits that enliven the story, including: 

  • Multilingual arrangements of “You’ll Be in My Heart” and “Proud Corazón”  
  • Classic songs like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “Friend Like Me” 
  • A sweeping arrangement of “So Close,” from Disney’s “Enchanted” 
  • Heartfelt renditions of “When She Loved Me,” “Remember Me” and “Into the Unknown” 
  • A crescendo of music featuring “I See the Light” from “Tangled,” which launches into the finale. 

All of those movie moment songs plus two new, original songs written exclusively for the show: “Heartbeat Symphony” and “Beating of our Hearts.” 

Disney Live Entertainment worked with Pinar Toprak once again on the Luminous score. You may know Pinar from her work on movie, television or video game soundtracks–or her EPCOT anthem at night by Spaceship Earth. Among the choir of voices lending their vocal talents to the score are singer/songwriter Sheléa and Katharine McPhee.

If you look at that song list and roll your eyes a little, not loving the idea of a bunch of Disney songs in World Showcase turning EPCOT into Happily Ever After 2.0, you’re not alone. That was my biggest concern with Luminous before seeing it–that there wouldn’t be enough daylight between Luminous and Happily Ever After to make each distinct and unique draws.

I’m happy to report that is not the case. While I do think there’s a tad too much overlap between the shows, Luminous stands on its own. This nighttime spectacular starts with the narrator welcoming guests to “The Great Gathering,” which might feel like the introduction to a cult’s retreat or a perfect nod to IllumiNations. Perhaps a bit of both. Walt Disney World fandom is a bit cult-adjacent.

The opening act follows with an introduction of each host nation along the World Showcase Lagoon, as well as pyro perimeter bursts. The show then builds into its first original song, Heartbeat Symphony, with musical motifs from the EPCOT anthem by Pinar Toprak. Like that, this too is excellent.

Heartbeat Symphony is both an earworm and a beautiful song. Its message of connectedness and living in harmony is a good one and it just feels right to hear this at the end of the day in World Showcase. Between the music and the visuals, Luminous feels like a spiritual successor to IllumiNations from the jump, and had me hooked.

Throughout the show, Luminous makes a lot of interesting creative choices. One of those is for the return of the narrator to introduce each segment and, essentially, explain how it fits thematically into the overarching message of the show. The more cynical of us might claim that there’s too much hand-holding here. That this is Walt Disney World not trusting the audience enough to “get” the subtleties of the show on their own, or evidence that the theme or narrative isn’t all that strong.

I can understand that perspective, but disagree. Whenever Disney Live Entertainment has gone ‘high concept’ with a nighttime spectacular, the message has been missed. Ask anyone but an IllumiNations super fan what the nighttime spectacular was “about” and you’re likely to get a blank stare. Or maybe a simple: “earth?”

More recently, there’s World of Color – ONE at Disney California Adventure. The through-line of that, how a single action creates a ripple that can grow into a wave of change, is easy to miss outside the original song, “Start A Wave.” Part of that is, presumably, because of IP mandates and the shoehorning of songs that mangle the message.

World of Color – ONE would’ve benefited tremendously from narration offering transitions and (attempting) to tie it all together. Arguably, so too would’ve IllumiNations. It may be beating guests over the head a little bit, but the fact is that most guests are not looking or listening for narratives in their nighttime spectaculars. Stating them explicitly is the right move, even if it’s “unnecessary” for the diehard fans.

From my perspective, this also makes at least some of the movie music a bit more forgivable and cohesive. “You’ll Be in My Heart” completely worked for me, thanks to the framing of the narrator who made it about birth and parent/childhood (although I’m admittedly a bit more receptive to this ‘message’ as a newly-minted parent).

Same goes for the familial bonds of “Proud Corazón.” For the most part, I’d also say the same for the moments of love and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “So Close,” although those are a bit more of a stretch.

And I absolutely loved the section on loss and mourning, featuring “When She Loved Me” and “Remember Me.” One of the reasons that I like Wondrous Journeys (fireworks at Disneyland) even more than Happily Ever After is for the bold choices it makes, including getting dark and introspective.

Luminous does something similar by delving into death. It’s not what you’d expect in a theme park nighttime spectacular, but it’s handled tenderly and gives the show more emotional weight. It also helps move the narrative forward by offering something to overcome, so to speak. I’m really pleased to see that Disney “went there,” as that’s not what I would’ve expected. So kudos on that. (It also helps that “Remember Me” is about the most upbeat rumination on death possible, using heart to build to happiness.)

But it doesn’t always work. The first time I heard the narrator exclaim “music becomes play” as the introduction to tunes from Toy Story, I literally laughed out loud. That is so forced it isn’t even funny (well, I did laugh…so maybe it is funny), to a degree that it almost makes you question the whole framing structure. Is it all just a means of shoehorning in movie music into World Showcase?!

The music from Aladdin is better, but only by comparison. Yes, I get that play and friendship are part of our shared story and an important part of human connections. They’re just as central to it as romance/love, death/loss, and so forth.

But “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and “Friend Like Me” just do not work. The first time I saw Luminous, I feared that this was the moment it’d jump the shark and “go full Harmonious.” (You never go full Harmonious.) Thankfully, that does not happen and the show recovers nicely (and fully), but in a half-dozen viewings since, I’ve never gotten used to this segment. It’s jarring and dissimilar from the rest of the Luminous, which is otherwise moving and beautifully-arranged. The rest of the show continues to grow on me even more, but not this section.

Luminous finishes strong. Coming out of the death and mourning scene, a segment about strength and overcoming adversity brings the show roaring back with “Into the Unknown” and “I See The Light.” I was skeptical about more Frozen music before hearing it, but this portion of the show is fantastic. Just beautifully done, through and through.

Finally, the finale. This is features “Beating of Our Hearts,” which is the second original song of Luminous. It is likewise fantastic, powerful and moving. It’s almost impossible for me to say which of the two I prefer–both have shades of IllumiNations, with the latter also showcasing some of the coolest pyro at Walt Disney World. I’d also add that photos and video don’t do full justice to the unique pyro. Much of it’s beautiful to see and very engrossing but, sadly, not particularly photogenic.

The degree to which Luminous ends with a bang cannot be overstated. It’s not just an assault on the eyes and ears like some fireworks finales, but it’s doing a lot to engage with different types of bursts, from perimeter to a pyro tower (for lack of a better term). A good finale leaves a lasting impression, and can make up for other weaknesses in the middle of the show.

Taking all of that into account, I’m surprised at just how well Luminous manages to correct the shortcomings of Harmonious. In looking through my old review of that before writing this, it would seem that almost every issue I had with the prior nighttime spectacular was corrected by Luminous.

The transitions are better. It doesn’t feel like a simple cut and paste job. It’s a show worthy of World Showcase. It’s more adult and feels like less of an internationalized Disney+ sizzle reel. It doesn’t let the tail of technology wag the dog. Everywhere around the lagoon offers a good view.

One of my biggest criticisms of Harmonious was that it seemed like Disney went to tech show, was impressed by a demo of the infrastructure, and bought it without having a compelling narrative or storytelling reason. The water tacos and Stargate never justified their own existence, and although it was cool to see the arms flail about like Kang and Kodos from the Simpsons, it was all so needless.

Luminous definitely plays it much safer than Harmonious. This is true primarily of the infrastructure, which has less upside but also much less downside. For all of its faults, Harmonious could be a visual feast from the right angles–it was just frustrating if you didn’t have one of those elusive angles and the cool visuals also came with some head scratching. Not to mention the daytime visual blight.

The same possibly could be said of the music. I’ve mentioned on a few occasions that I think Harmonious is destined to become a cult classic as more people discover videos of it on YouTube and forget about all of the ways it was awful. (Nostalgia is a form of revisionist history.) Part of that is due to the music, which has both hits and misses. Harmonious definitely took more big swings than Luminous, but that mostly just meant it struck out more.

The lesson here, I think, is that storytelling and cohesiveness matter far more than flashiness. Which isn’t to say Luminous doesn’t have wow-moments–it absolutely does. But it also feels a little like the follow-up to a massive misstep, with Walt Disney World leaning into its strengths and trying to minimize mistakes. That’s not criticism. I actually appreciate Disney recognizing what it does well and doing that, rather than doing whatever Harmonious was.

I also like that the foundation for Luminous feels fairly flexible. This could become the platform for seasonal fireworks tags and more regular updates–somewhat like we’ve seen with the Beacons of Magic getting new shows for each festival. Probably not with the same degree of regularity since fireworks shows are more costly to change even when not accounting for infrastructure, but there are more possibilities here than with IllumiNations or Harmonious.

As should be obvious from the foregoing, I far prefer Luminous to Harmonious. It’s no secret that I hated Harmonious as a whole, even if it did have its moments. No further discussion there is warranted. The bigger and better question is whether Luminous is a worthy replacement to IllumiNations?

I’m a biased reviewer and cannot give a fair answer to that. I absolutely loved IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. I saw it more times than I can count—probably more than all other Disney nighttime spectaculars combined. It was an elegant and sophisticated fireworks show totally unlike anything at Walt Disney World. IllumiNations was rife with symbolism, nuance, and abstract ideas–you know, things small children and drunk adults visit theme parks to see!

Nevertheless, I would like to think that I’m at least somewhat objective and fair. Even as much as I loved it, I am very aware of the criticisms of IllumiNations. That it dragged too much in the middle. Was too boring. Not Disney enough. The globe was too small and distant. Probably other things that I’m forgetting.

With all of that in mind, Luminous is the nighttime spectacular I would design (assuming I had, you know, talent) if given the opportunity and the mandate from Walt Disney World that people other than just me had to like it. If someone said, “you can appease the diehard EPCOT Center fans, but you also have to make this a fireworks show that, somehow, won’t put casual guests to sleep.” Luminous is that show.

Well, minus the unfortunate Toy Story and Aladdin part. But one shoehorned segment out of the bunch? That really isn’t that bad, especially as compared to what I expected (and what Harmonious delivered). And if I’m being honest, there were parts of IllumiNations that I didn’t fully love either.

One of the things that I think my fellow EPCOT Center fans struggle with is the notion that time has passed us by and contemporary guest preferences have changed. This isn’t to say there aren’t still a lot of diehards. Or that certain messages and emotions aren’t universal. There are and there are. It’s more to recognize that there’s no going back to the days of IllumiNations, so you either evolve or move on.

With Luminous, the creative team at Walt Disney World chose to evolve. This is a nighttime spectacular sharing bloodlines with Harmonious, sure, but even stronger ones with IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. It fixes the mistakes of both of its predecessors to deliver a contemporary nighttime spectacular that’s moving, powerful, and emotionally satisfying.

Luminous contains a fitting message that’s in the spirit of EPCOT Center, and is an excellent way for all guests to end a day at the park. The overhaul of EPCOT has been a mixed bag with hits and misses. It took them two tries, but they ended up with a hit for the nighttime spectacular. I’m looking forward to watching it for the decade to come, seeing how the show itself evolves along with our perspective of it as we move through the seasons of the human experience.

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YOUR THOUGHTS

Are you excited to see Luminous at EPCOT? If you’ve already had a chance to experience it, what’s your impression of EPCOT’s huge new nighttime spectacular? Does it “work” for you, or is it another misfire? Is Luminous a worthy replacement to IllumiNations? Do you agree or disagree with our review? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

35 Responses to “Luminous Symphony of Us Review: Fitting Fireworks for EPCOT?!”
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