For the majority of Americans, “Disney” is synonymous with high-quality entertainment and comforting family values (Anderson and Tavin 2003
). By the end of the twentieth century, hundreds of millions of people were annually watching a Disney film in theaters or on home video, watching weekly Disney television shows, listening to Disney music on home audio players, and visiting Disney theme parks (Eisner 1995
). To this day, Walt Disney theme parks consistently rank highest globally in amusement park attendance (Rubin 2018
), firmly cementing their place in immersive entertainment. One popular—albeit sometimes controversial—cornerstone of the Disney immersion experience is the role of thematic music in transporting audiences to other ‘worlds.’ One staple attraction exemplifying this use of thematic ‘worldy’ music is IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, the current nightly entertainment event at Disney’s EPCOT1
theme park in Orlando, Florida. This nighttime show presents itself as a retelling of humanity’s story from Earth’s creation to modern day life, all through visuals and music. As the story evolves from the beginning of time to the modern-day world (a finale section entitled “Meaning”), the music evolves from sounds of other cultures, often stereotypical, to a completely Western Euro-American music soundscape, thus insinuating that the evolution of humanity’s ‘progress’ throughout time finally reaches ‘meaning’ once cultures become Westernized.
Disney has an established history of heavily utilizing music in films and theme parks in attempts to create aural soundscapes of exotic locales, foreign cultures, and globally vast civilizations. The very concept of so-called ‘world’ music is a broad notion based on musical exoticism and musical folklorism where “easily recognized musical characteristics from an alien culture are assimilated into a more familiar style, giving it an exotic color and suggestiveness” (Bellman 1998, p. ix
). Though extremely popular and commercially successful, Disney music warrants frequent criticism for combining Western (Euro-American) musical elements with folk world music stereotypes often related to appropriation to present a “Disneyfied” version that is interpreted by American audiences as ‘authentic’ (Armstrong 2018
). Furthermore, millions of international tourists visit Walt Disney World theme parks in Florida every year, comprising approximately 18–20% of total attendance (Garcia 2013
). Consequently, people from nonWestern countries may view this Americanized perspective of their music and cultures as a problematic, false representation of themselves. Thus, the purpose of this article is to explore Disney’s use of an insinuated ‘world music’ narrative within a Westernized framework in EPCOT’s IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
2. The EPCOT Experience
Contextual deconstruction of the musical effects within IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth warrants an introductory analysis of the broader EPCOT experience from which the nighttime show is one fabric piece. Since its opening in 1982, EPCOT has flourished under the reputation of inviting guests to come “travel around the world” (EPCOT 2018
). This enticing marketing stays true to the vision that Walt Disney himself stated should be the foundation of his visitors’ immersive experiences: “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park…I want them to feel they’re in another world” (Wilson 1991, p. 161
). EPCOT’s attendees achieve this ‘world traveling’ experience through three massive, immersive encounters: its World Showcase section, its Future World section, and its IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth nighttime show (which debuted in 1999).
EPCOT’s unique World Showcase section stands as a circular display of eleven “countries” surrounding a large lagoon (the nighttime show resides in the center of this body of water). Each country is exhibited in a world’s-fair-style pavilion (Carson 2004
) with promises of offering visitors ‘authentic’—yet often clichéd—interactions with clothing, architecture, food, art, dance, and music from its represented nation. Park guests are invited to spend the day ‘sampling’ countries as they ‘travel’ from one nation to the other in a symbolic cultural buffet-like carousel.
Disney’s fondness for world-fair-style attractions is understandable due to its history with these infamous fairs. Per example, Walt Disney debuted his now iconic attraction “It’s A Small World” for the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair (Baber and Spickard 2013
). The attraction consisted of visitors boarding guided passenger boats and riding through several “countries” from around the world; each “country” represented through animatronic doll-like figures wearing native folk costumes and singing the same catchy “It’s A Small World” tune (but with varying languages and musical accompaniment). Composed by Robert and Richard Sherman,2
the uplifting music, singable melody, and heartwarming lyrics of the song “It’s A Small World” reinforced the visual core message of the ride: we are all united living together on one planet under “just one moon and one golden sun” (Sherman 2017
). An instant hit with audiences, Disney advertised “It’s A Small World” as an “enchanting tribute to the popular American fantasies of life overseas” (Baber and Spickard 2013
)—a validation of Disney’s self-proclaimed vision of transporting people to other ‘worlds.’
EPCOT’s World Showcase acts as a grander dramatic expansion of the single-ride experience of “It’s A Small World”, but encourages the same spectatorship and passivity through stereotypical appropriated nostalgia (Giroux 1999, p. 43
). The immersive ‘global’ experience within the World Showcase (as with many Disney theme park attractions) largely stems from marketing the spectacle of the “other”, often in live form, with a heavy Euro-American perspective (Nooshin 2004
). EPCOT, much like American world’s fairs, has one principal aim: “the packaging of world cultures and new technologies as entertainment for consumption by a mass American audience” (Nelson 1986
). One not-so-subtle reminder of this Western perspective is the location of the American Pavilion in the direct center of the World Showcase, granting it the strongest geographic visibility from any angled position within the park. Its metaphorical “head of the table” seat in the World Showcase, and its accompanying lagoon seems to reinforce a mythologized notion of America’s status as a beacon for all to see while (literally) being the center of the world.
In the same vein as World Showcase, EPCOT’s front half of the park, named Future World, boasts several rides and attractions dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and awareness of ‘other’ places and people. Soarin’ Around the World invites guests to take a virtual flight adventure hang gliding above natural and man-made wonders spanning the globe; Spaceship Earth welcomes riders on a slow-moving ‘time-travel’ odyssey exploring the historical evolution of human communication across the planet; Mission Space gives participants a motion simulation experience of orbiting the Earth and literally traveling around the world; Living with the Land offers boat tours through greenhouses giving insight into diverse ecosystems, global produce, agricultural history, and the “future of food production” (EPCOT 2018
). These staple Future World attractions within the front half of the park partner with the World Showcase pavilions in the back half of the park to create a symbiotic relationship—together they claim a completed realized immersive exploration through the past, present, and future of Earth and its diverse inhabitants.
In the evening, once visitors have experienced touring the world, they are encouraged to gather around the World Showcase Lagoon and witness IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, an award-winning nighttime entertainment show that invites park attendees to “behold the past, present, and future of Earth at this stunning fireworks show that celebrates the spirit of humanity” (EPCOT 2018
). This 13 minute-long senses spectacular utilizes fireworks, lasers, pyrotechnics, water jets, and visual projections, all accompanied by an original musical score composed by British film composer Gavin Greenaway (Greenaway 1999
). The visual anchor of the show is a massive revolving globe floating in the center of the lagoon: cut away oceans give an “airy and elegant feel to the structure” (Mirarchi 2011
) while continents illuminate with colors, lights, images, and videos. The globe is an impressive technological feat: it is the world’s first spherical video display system (Mirarchi 2011
). The aural anchor of the show is a cinematic musical experience meant to evoke the symbolic soundscape of a historically evolving world. Witnessing IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth live means literally ‘seeing the world’ (a spinning globe framed in a rainbow-shaped backdrop of foreign country pavilions) while ‘hearing the world’ (a carefully-timed and themed orchestration with insinuated sounds of world music)—all from the beauty and safety of American soil. The EPCOT experience concludes visitors’ day-long globe-trotting journeys with the comforting tried-and-true Disney tenet: we can all be united, overcome our differences, and find peace around the world (Baber and Spickard 2013
EPCOT has proven itself to be a staple tourist destination for people (especially Americans) wanting to experience exoticized “others” (Carson 2004
). In 2017, Epcot ranked as the seventh most attended theme park worldwide and the fourth most attended theme park in the United States (ranked only behind three other Disney parks), totaling an average of nearly twelve million annual visitors in recent years (Rubin 2018
). Although the park does offer some rides and attractions beyond the ‘travel around the world’ theme, there is no denying a tremendous amount of visitors’ attention is centered on this appealing idea of an immersive ‘passport’ (since the overwhelming majority of attractions, rides, and entertainment within the park follow this collective theme). It is quite evident that millions of Americans every year visit EPCOT with expectations of experiencing the ‘rest’ of the world.
3. The Organization of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
As previously stated, IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth presents itself as a boisterous visual and musical anthem celebrating globalness and progress. In contrast to the often live-performed music found among the World Showcase Pavilions, the IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth soundtrack is a prerecorded score which is amplified through massive speakers strategically placed around the park. This is not a rare or ‘lesser’ approach to the execution of music. Recorded music is often used in Disney theme parks to condition an audience response (Camp 2017
), especially if the desired sound source is a massive symphonic orchestra able to produce dramatic cinematic-style music (as is the case for Gavin Greenaway’s densely orchestrated instrumental score for EPCOT’s nighttime spectacular).
Both the IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth live show, and Greenaway’s specific score divide into sections which chronologically convey the narrative ‘story’ of humanity. The nighttime show begins with an Introduction consisting of narration that serves to gather the attention of park guests and welcome them to the evening event; background ‘mood’ music accompanies the narration. Famous Disney voice actor Jim Cummings speaks this prerecorded narration.3
Once the Introduction section concludes and the narration ceases, the main show moves forward with a narrative ‘story’ sectioned into three “parts”: PART ONE: The Earth is Born, PART TWO: The Triumph of Life, and PART THREE: Hope for the Future (EPCOT 2018
). Within these three broader “parts” Greenaway’s score is divided into nine continuous miniature musical sections (eight instrumental and one vocal): Prologue: Acceleration, Chaos, Space, Life, Adventure, Home, Celebration, Meaning, and the vocal song “We Go On” (Greenaway 1999
). Although none of these show “parts” or musical sections are announced for the audience, nor are there any continuity breaks within the show to elicit an awareness of purposeful distinct sections, the divided headings are listed and described on EPCOT’s official website and the CD album jacket for the official IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth soundtrack.
This article acknowledges that Greenaway’s listed musical sections lack assignment to the three broader “parts” of the show in any written validation. The soundtrack’s album jacket listing of the nine music sections omits recognition of the three broader “parts” of the show, so one must use a combination of logical listening of the score and interpretation of the written “parts” descriptions on EPCOT’s website to estimate how Greenaway’s musical sections group under the three larger umbrella headings. For analysis purposes, this article assumes the following logical estimation:
INTRODUCTION: Narration (background ‘mood’ music)4
“PART ONE: The Earth is Born” (Prologue: Acceleration, Chaos)
“PART TWO: The Triumph of Life” (Space, Life, Adventure, Home Celebration, Meaning)
“PART THREE: Hope for the Future” (“We Go On”)
4. Musical Westernization of the World’s ‘Story’
Greenaway’s music for IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth is meant to emotionally take us through humanity’s progression from “chaos” to “meaning.” However, the musical devices woven within the complex score seems to structure an alternative subliminal ‘progression’: nonWestern to Western. Although the sounds of other cultures embed in appropriate sections of the music’s ‘timeline’, Western musical elements dominate the score. Additionally, as the timeline continues, the prevalence of ‘world’ sounds decrease while foundational components of Western music prevail in the foreground, concluding in an entirely Euro-American finale.
Some might argue that the ‘progression’ represented in Greenaway’s score actually symbolizes humans’ advancement of music organization and construction (as a product of evolving organized societies), which would coincidentally put Euro-American music as the symbol of the progression’s ultimate arrival of ‘success’, the concluding celebration of Euro-American music is inevitable, not pompous. However, this would still be a false narrative. While it is true that organizational components of Western music are prevalent in countries all throughout the world, this does not negate the existence of a plethora of other organized systems of music. The modern world contains hundreds of different native instruments, tones, and notation systems not used in conventional Western music (Gaare 1997
). Therefore, Greenaway’s arrival at a purely Westernized musical finale for the insinuated enlightenment of “meaning” perpetuates an assumption that Western music is the music of humanity: humans’ global journeys have all led to the doorstep of a bright, beautiful Euro-American world.
5. Musical Framing and its Purpose for Disney
To accurately analyze the musical “framing” used in EPCOT’s nighttime show, it is essential to define musical “framing” first and evaluate Disney’s pattern of employing it in their endeavors.
The structure of “framing” refers to the concept of the ‘different’ being surrounded by the familiar ‘normal’ (McClary 1991
). Thus, in musical “framing”, foreign ‘other’ musical sounds are preceded, followed, and accompanied by contrasting recognizable ‘normal’ sounds (Armstrong 2018
). This structure allows the composer to control the depiction, portrayal, and perception of the ‘other’ (Armstrong 2018
). Musical “framing” has been a staple in Disney music, especially since the surge of Broadway-style animated musical films during the 1990s and the construction of several theme parks in recent decades.
Disney composers invest in music’s ability to navigate an inventory of complicated and conflicting objectives. These objectives include framing songs in the traditional Western musical sounds that American consumers desire, inserting enough native folk-often stereotypical-musical elements to establish ‘authenticity’ of the represented culture in the story, and promoting Disney’s emphasis on moralism and suburban ‘American’ values of family, patriotism, and progressiveness (Wills 2017, p. 6
). The combination of these objectives is Disney’s solution in creating catchy and memorable music for Western audiences that still sound ‘authentic’ within story settings frequently deemed ‘exotic’ or ‘far away’ (basically not in America). Critics highlight several famous examples: ‘Caribbean’ music in The Little Mermaid; ‘French’ music in Beauty and the Beast; ‘Middle Eastern’ music in Aladdin; ‘African’ music in The Lion King; ‘Native American’ music in Pocahontas; ‘Chinese’ music in Mulan; ‘Polynesian’ music in Moana; ‘Mexican’ music in Coco.
Initially, Disney did not put effort into hiring music professionals from the cultures represented to participate in the music. ‘Caribbean’-sounding songs in The Little Mermaid, ‘French’-sounding songs in Beauty and the Beast, ‘Middle Eastern’-sounding songs in Aladdin, ‘Native American’-sounding songs in Pocahontas, and ‘Chinese’-sounding songs in Mulan were all written by American or British songwriters and sung by American voice actors (with the exception of Filipina singer Lea Salonga in Aladdin and Mulan).
Eventually, Disney did attempt to provide more authenticity through the inclusion of music professionals representative of the desired culture; however, Euro-American influences still control the music. Although South African producer Lebohang Morake sang and conducted an African choir for selected songs in The Lion King, all of the songs were written by British composers Elton John and Tim Rice, and mostly performed by American and British actors. Despite Polynesian musician Opetaia Foa’i writing and performing certain songs in Moana, American Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (who is not of Polynesian ancestry) composed most of the central songs. While a variety of Mexican actors and musicians performed the majority of the songs in Coco, the central theme, that is repeated throughout the film as the musical anchor, was written by American Broadway writing team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who are not of Mexican ancestry). Ironically, Disney even missed opportunities to have complete authenticity within films centered on American-styled music. The music of Hercules and The Princess and the Frog centers on African-American-influenced styles of gospel, jazz, blues, and R&B; however, none of the composers involved in these films were African-American (except for singer-songwriter Ne-Yo who contributed a song for the ending credits in The Princess and the Frog).
While the standalone merits of Disney music are undeniable (most Disney musical films earn several wins or nominations for prestigious music awards), their use of exoticism, orientalism, and Western music “framing” cannot go unacknowledged (Roca 2012
). The desired effect of these music tactics is to ensure a “facade of otherness” (Wang and Yeh 2005
The scope of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth is a conflicting musical journey. Although specific sections contain clear intentions of giving representation to music of various global cultures, there is never a lack of Western musical dominance. As the score moves forward to its triumphant climax, the ‘world’ music fades away as the Euro-American music prevails. The show’s message of humanity finding meaning in ‘oneness’ infers a subliminal insinuation of finding meaning in ‘Westerness.’
While IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth boasts an impressively composed score by Greenaway, it still serves as another representation of Disney’s instinct to construct Western musical frameworks within its projects. Disney invites people to visit EPCOT and experience the ‘other’ parts of the world, but through a controlled perspective of familiarity, tropes, and narrow scopes. Disney’s consistent use of this framework in films and theme parks potentially gives people (particularly Americans) a false sense of awareness of both themselves and ‘others’: the Western world is the world. Connecting concepts of primitiveness with ‘world’ music and meaning with Western music perpetuates a false narrative of an evolved Euro-American world and unevolved ‘others.’