"Where are You Christmas?" A Review of "Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM" at Disney's Hollywood Studios
Posted in Disney's Hollywood Studios on Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Author: Ryan L. Terry
One of my favorite times of the year at the Disney Parks is the holiday season. And not just November through December but September through October too. The autumn and winter holidays offer so much opportunity for seasonal offerings that make the Holidays a special time of year for friends, family, and lovers. Of all the holidays, Christmastime is the generally the highest attended and most looked forward to at the Disney Parks. Whereas Universal Studios Florida is the king with Busch Gardens Tampa Bay as Queen during Halloween, the big D is arguably king at Christmas--perhaps the Jingle King? Putting a Christmas spin on Pumpkin King. For years, hundreds of thousands of park guests flood the Disney Parks to enjoy everything from Cinderella's Castle draped in icicle lights to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party to the late Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights and even Holidays Around the World at Epcot's World Showcase and Jingle Cruise (the holiday overlay at Jungle Cruise). Not to even mention the elaborate gingerbread houses and other creations at the Disney Resorts. Over the last few years, we have witnessed a slow mitigation of Holiday offerings. Most notably the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios (DHS) and Animal Kingdom's Jingle Jungle Parade. Along with so many anxious park guests and Cast Members, I too was curious how DHS was going to adjust its Christmas offerings with the conspicuous absence of the Osborne Lights. Sunday night, I was finally able to watch the new Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM show at DHS, and if I had to sum up the experience in one word, it'd be a lukewarm "meh." But as you know, I will provide you with many more words, haha.
After the announcement of Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM as the special seasonal nighttime spectacular offering at DHS, I was still sad that there were no more dancing lights but I was looking forward to the new show and how it was going to play out. Taking place in the center of the park at the replica of the timeless Grauman's Chinese Theatre serving as the show building for the opening day attraction The Great Movie Ride and icon of the park, Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM (Jingle BAM from hereon) is a colorful display of map projections, lasers, and pyrotechnics. Many of your favorite Disney and Pixar animated films are included as well as a sequence from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. In addition to the familiar film clips, there is a loosely integrated narrative with Santa's elves and then a message from the big man himself. Accompanying the outstanding map projections of gingerbread men, presents, snow, and other holiday iconic images are a vast array of lasers crisscrossing the sky adding an immersive effect to the courtyard and Hollywood Blvd. No nighttime spectacular at the Disney parks would be complete without pyrotechnics. Jingle BAM boasts a fantastic finale of fireworks that dazzle the sky.
For all the wonderful potential the show has, it unfortunately fails to leave even half the lasting impression that the Osborne Lights left in the hearts and minds of park guests for 20 years. There are a few key elements that contribute to the mediocre reception of Jingle BAM: (1) DHS is not designed/laid out for a nighttime hub show (2) narrative is weak (3) plays out very flat--lacks depth (4) the fireworks are nowhere close to being centered behind the Chinese Theatre (5) fails to elicit a positive emotional response from the park guests (6) Santa's message is generic and forgettable and (7) there is very little "Christmas" to be found in the show, period. However, it's not all bad. The show is an outstanding combination of programming, projection technology, and brilliant lasers. The lasers greatly enhance the experience when the snow falls along Hollywood Blvd. From a technical perspective, the show is an incredible spectacle of what happens when art and science are combined.
Unless you arrive one or more hours before showtime or purchase the special dinner/dessert package viewing area, you will quickly notice that your view is most likely obstructed by anything from palm trees, to tech booths, to light poles, shoppes, or even children on the shoulders of parents. Let's face it, the latter is unavoidable. If you've ever been to DHS, you'll remember that the courtyard in from of the stage in front of Great Movie Ride (GMR) is quite small. Possibly a 1/3 of the size of the one in front of the Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK). So, there isn't much physical space to work with when accommodating thousands of guests in the same location for a 15min show. Although Osborne Lights moved over the years, it was a staple to the local holiday celebrations, for sure, as well as those who would travel hundreds of miles. Very quickly, for those of you who do not know the history of Osborne Lights, the show was originally on Residential Street (a street of TV houses) until it was moved to its former location on Streets of America (production standing set). Families and friends could casually stroll through the millions of lights that danced every few minutes--synced to classic and contemporary holiday hits! No showtimes. Just continual twinkling and dancing from sunset to one hour after the park closed.
Much like the hub area, the backlot area was also unable to support the majority of the park guests at any one (1) time. So, the continual dancing was important because guests could attend at their leisure. Compounding the physical space dilemma, there are also new palm trees that were installed after the hat was removed, two giant towers that are tech/electrical/equipment booths for the "temporary" stage that sits where the hat was, and several light poles. Once you back up toward Hollywood Blvd, your view is also blocked by the other trees and shoppes. Unlike Magic Kingdom, which has a low grade incline from the train station to the castle, there is no incline from the entrance of DHS to GMR; therefore, the possibility of an obstructed view is greatly increased. Never mind that GMR is less than half the height of Cinderella's Castle. Between the level surface from the entrance to GMR, the palm trees directly in front of GMR, and the tech booths blocking the view from Hollywood Blvd, it is clear that this park is not designed for a hub show. At least a hub show that runs only once. And you know what? There is little that can be done about the layout of the park. So. The Imagineers and entertainment leadership should recognize those shortcomings and develop a way that a decent view of the show is possible from the central area of the park.
I love the concept of storytelling--in all forms. So, naturally I was curious as to how a story was woven into Jingle BAM. Even now, I am attempting to piece together what the story was. Essentially, the elves are looking for Santa because he is missing. Turns out that he has been captured by Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. After Boogie's song number, Santa is rescued. Following Santa's rescue, he has a message about friends and family. More specifically, he directs the message to the City of Orlando. But, it just doesn't strike an emotional tone. It plays off as canned and generic. Tiny Tim's closing remarks "God bless us, everyone" from Charles Dickens' masterpiece A Christmas Carol packs much more meaning and impact. Interestingly, it is the other bookend and answer to the novel's opening line "Marley was dead to begin with, there's no doubt about that." I think a holiday message about friends and family is very important, but this one just plays off as forced--like other elements of this show. There is definitely a story and message there, but it is weak. Perhaps it would have been more effective to include some holiday spirit or nostalgia in his closing remarks. I think the show would play out just as well--if not better--if the plot of rescuing Santa wasn't present. Not that I think the show should be without a story, but the story should be more coherent. Stories, such as this one, should also attempt to elicit an emotional response from the audience but it does not extend its reach beyond the surface level.
The over all experience of the show lacked depth. It felt very flat--like a projected image, ironically enough. All surface level and spectacle but no substance. One of the major attractions to and benefits from Osborne Lights was the total immersion into a winter wonderland. Immersion is so incredibly important in themed entertainment. The Osborne Lights provided more than a show--an experience! Even more importantly than immersion is the concept of experiential attractions. And this was an experience like no other. Jingle BAM lacks these all too important elements of immersion and experience. Instead of experiencing the seasonal holiday offering, park guests watch as third party spectators. The only time it becomes mildly experiential is when the Florida snow begins to fall. One of the most important elements to the experience of the Osborne Lights was the park guests' ability to go from spectator to participant. The transition from spectator to participant is a popular trend in themed entertainment attractions because it offers a much more visceral experience. But what about the other nighttime Disney shows??? Aren't they more of a spectacle than experience? Short answer: yes. Wishes, Illuminations, Fantasmic, and the Tree of Life are all about the sheer spectacle of it all. And there's nothing wrong with that...provided that is how it's always been. However, Wishes is set apart because of the strong emotions the music and pyro evokes from the park guests. It truly is a magical experience. But the problem occurs when the park offers a participatory experience and replaces it with something more along the lines of a glorified short film.
Most Disney nighttime spectaculars offer a phenomenal dazzling array of pyrotechnics and fireworks. Keeping in line with the tradition of magical Disney fireworks, Jingle BAM also offers an impressive choreographed firework display and dynamic finale. Unfortunately, those fireworks are not behind the Chinese Theatre--not even close. The majority of the pyro and entire firework finale is way off stage left (house right). illuminating the sky above the Animation Courtyard, the fireworks cause the park guests to turn their heads 90-degrees (away from the center of the show). Although DHS would have to close the Pixar area during the Galactic Spectacular (Star Wars nighttime show) in order to keep guests safe from the falling debris, the fireworks shot off above the Chinese Theatre making for a phenomenal nighttime show that was truly spectacular whether you are a Star Wars fan or not. The show was incredibly impressive. With the fireworks way off to the side at Jingle BAM, it feels more like a distraction than the finale.
Lastly, the show simply does not have that holiday spirit. Other than Santa and a couple Christmas songs, the show has a very generic feel. So much so that, take away Santa and replace a few other elements and the show could silly be modified to run as part of daily operations. That certainly displays efficiency, but this is a seasonal offering during Christmastime and should feel special. Guests should have the impression that they cannot get this experience anywhere else. As it stands, this map projection show is not unlike the one at Magic Kingdom. Since Disney has two popular versions of A Christmas Carol as part of its IP, I was shocked that neither make appearances in the show. What is more Christmassy than the timeless classic??? The lack of Christmas music is compounded by the absence of Jack Skellington's lyrics in the song What's This? from The Nightmare Before Christmas. As part of the score for Jingle BAM, the accompaniment from What's This? can be heard, but no lyrics. Although many people celebrate the holiday season differently and various elements are held more dearly than others, there should have been a mixture of classic and contemporary holiday hits to create a festive atmosphere. The magic of Christmas is very much lacking in this seasonal show. Where are you Christmas?
Over all, Jingle BAM is a cute show. Is it a replacement for the late Osborne Lights? No. Is it filled with holiday cheer? Not particularly. But perhaps this is the start of something that will grow to become nostalgic for guests that are just now experiencing the Disney parks for the first time. With map projection shows taking the place of more practical effect shows, we could simply we witnessing the next evolution of nighttime spectaculars at Walt Disney World. As I recognize the need to evolve and develop new ideas in order to keep the parks relevant to current generations, perhaps Disney Imagineers can find a way to combine both the Osborne Lights and the map projection concept in a new dynamic show--a new experience. In the short term, if Disney Imagineers could find a way to modify the current Jingle BAM to go from a one (1) showtime to something more continuous like the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, then that would quickly solve the physical space and adequate viewing dilemma.
Ryan holds a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies (with a concentration in cinema and themed entertainment) from the University of South Florida. His research area is on the convergence of cinema and theme parks. He explores ideas such as narrative, spectacle, setting, and setting in terms of movies and themed entertainment. Learning how to successfully translate an idea of intellectual property from one medium into another is the primary goal of his predictable model for creative design that affects both theme parks and the cinema.
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