[Editor's note: After a phenomenal opening ceremony that rivaled the Olympics (as seen in the January 2006 issue of Live Design, pp. 26-29), Hong Kong Disney has thrown open its gates to thousands of visitors every day.]

What Disney theme park would be complete without its fair share of live entertainment? Hong Kong Disney is certainly no different, with live theatrical events that have proven so popular that guests have given the shows higher marks than the attractions. The Golden Mickeys takes guests on a tour through the history of Disney animation and is based on a show of the same name that has been playing on the Disney cruise ships. The Festival of the Lion King is a dramatically different retelling of the popular animated cartoon that is also wildly different from the Broadway version and is performed in the Theatre in the Wild, a venue based on West African assembly halls to better relate to the story's roots.

Audiences who come in for The Golden Mickeys are treated like VIPs at a Hollywood awards show, according to Michael Jung, creative director for Disney Creative Entertainment who oversaw the creation of the shows. “It's a stunning variety show that takes us through several animated classics, and we built it to purposefully be a primer for the guests to expose them to the Disney animation classics,” he explains, adding that in Hong Kong, Disney is fairly new — unlike its 50-year history in the US — and the creative team did not want to take for granted the audience's familiarity, or lack thereof, with the Disney canon of characters.

The design team for The Golden Mickeys includes lighting designer Matt Frye and scenic designer Myung Hee Cho. Frye was eager to get the chance to “re-imagine” a show he designed originally for the Disney Cruise Line ships. “When we got to Hong Kong, we got to do it the way we originally wanted to do it,” he says, adding that the hardest part was convincing the powers that be at Disney that he was needed in the first place. “Disney doesn't want to bring on anyone until they're sure they need them, and the lighting designer is the last guy invited to the party.”

Frye was delighted that the process for The Golden Mickeys in Hong Kong was quite a change from the original process that occurred when the show was mounted on the cruise ships. One huge limitation was that the rig was part of a rep plot because there are several shows in one theatre on the ships, but that was not the biggest issue. “The biggest problem on a cruise ship is you can't do maintenance,” he says. “Every night, our crew fixing moving lights and had notes on several lights, on ship. When you leave [the ship], in three days, it won't look the way you left it.” He added that, due to crew limitations, often the person doing maintenance on the lighting rig is also a bartender in one of the ship's bars. In Hong Kong, there are up 10 shows a day, “but it's the only show in there, and they have an after-hours crew whose sole job is to maintain the lights.”

As for choosing the instruments for the rig, Frye wanted moving lights that were not too flashy or showy, so he went with 26 Vari-Lite 3000 Q and 25 VL2500 fixtures. There are also 275 conventional fixtures along with Wybron CXI color scrollers, “because the only way to react to [changes in the show] quickly was to have some kind of color changer or scroller,” he explains. Eric Norris programmed the rig on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3 console.

Frye also used a couple of Robert Juliat HMI spots and a star drop manufactured by F&D Scene Change, Ltd. in Calgary, Canada, and wired with Martin FiberSource QFX150 units for fiber optics. Not LEDs? “We discussed LEDs for some things,” Frye explains. “If anything, Disney doesn't want to go too far out on a limb with technology. A downside to being a lighting designer on Disney is that you come in after all discussions have happened without your two cents getting put in. It's frustrating not to be in on early decisions.”

For Festival of the Lion King, audiences are treated to a dramatic and whimsical tale of lion cub Simba from his birth to becoming king of the jungle. The stage is set up in a theatre-in-the-round configuration, and as the show begins, different pieces of the set “float” in and take their place in the 2,200-seat venue. “Our goal with that show, particularly because it was in the round, is to make the audience feel the show is going on around them,” Jung says. “The audience becomes a part of the African storytelling tradition.”

The set, designed by Walt Spangler, is one of the most complicated sets in any of Disney's live shows around the world, according to Jung. “What Walt captured so beautifully was the notion of a new design aesthetic that was separate from Broadway and unique from the film.” The center staging area is comprised of four separate platforms that can move up and down as needed — creating a wedding cake effect — and the entire stage is also a turntable. Above the stage is a 50' diameter woven African ornament that represents the sun and is based on an actual African headdress.

Spangler admits he was stymied at first. “I felt the original Broadway Lion King was so inspired that I didn't know what we were going to do. The space that we were doing it in and intention of the show were so completely different that once we jumped in and looked at African research, we really became inspired,” he explains. “Going to the original African research is so inspiring and so bold and is certainly unlike American sensibilities that the Broadway production went completely out of my mind.”

Assisting Spangler on the design team were LD Michael Korsch, costume designer Judanna Lynn, and Michael Curry, who designed the puppets. The goal of the design team, according to Jung, was to create a new world for Simba, Scar, Timon, Pumba, and the gang that was markedly different from the familiar cartoon and world-renowned Broadway show. “We really wanted to blow that world out and have the characters recognizable to young audiences and be playful,” he says. “Walt did that very successfully, and we use a lot of the elements that are part of the sets but are also used as performance elements.”

For one of the floats featuring an elephant, the unit has a tree backdrop with huge leaves, which later become shields when the lionesses are battling the hyenas. “The audience sees things throughout the show in a different way,” Jung adds. “[Walt] was quite successful in bringing a gorgeous aesthetic to the show, which is pretty unique from the theme parks and the Broadway show.”

Lynn designed the various costumes in New York, constructed at Barbara Matera Ltd., which were, in essence, prototypes for what would be used in Hong Kong because casting had not been completed. “We used fit models from ABT,” she explains, “but the sizes weren't relevant once we got over there. Then the challenge was to remake them and have them fit to Asian bodies.” She added that the costume makers did amazing work in translating her designs via their own aesthetic.

Lynn's research included immersing herself in the world of African clothing styles, but she allowed herself some leeway. “The show is not mean to be a documentary,” she says, “but a very stylized version of The Lion King, so we just put together rather abstract patterns. I was also sensitive to the Asian aesthetic. Even though it was an African inspired, we wanted the costumes to be relevant to the Hong Kong audiences.”

Spangler adds that the idea for the four major scenic elements was a given, but once it was decided that they would come together during the “Circle of Life” finale number, then that set element became its own project in terms of how the show was ultimately going to move and how the story would be told. When the show begins, the stage is completely empty. Once the audience is seated, the procession begins, and the four set pieces move on knife tracks controlled via SMPTE. As the set pieces move in, they turn around so that the puppets on board can greet the audience. The floats then settle in their respective corners, thus allowing each float's puppet to be a part of the action when needed or simply sit back and watch the show with the audience. For the finale, the set pieces converge at the center of the room and create a single unified sculptural piece upon which the show's 30 actors perform, and finally the giant piece revolves like a carousel.

“I never wanted to create a sense of realism, but rather an environment that captures the essence of each moment,” LD Korsch explains. “The lighting needed to direct the audience's focus and to help define the space in conjunction with Walt's scenery. The lighting has a bold, dynamic, layered, cinematic, seamless flow to it and appears to be morphing from cue to cue rather than just crossfading. Moving lights were instrumental in achieving that. Much of the cuing involved live movement of the moving lights but not just for the sake of movement. All the movement has a purpose.”

With 80 moving fixtures and 130 conventionals, the cues had to be spot-on. “The cuing is seamless and fluid. By often seeing the lights move into their new positions, morphing into a new a color, gobo, or focusing to a higher intensity, the audience would see many cues establishing rather than a preset cue,” Korsch explains. “It was not always possible to do a live change smoothly because certain gobos need to be preset, while some fixtures are faded to black. Even then, there's still a fluid quality to the cueing, and that was a large part of what I was going for.”

With up to 30 actors on stage at one time and huge pieces of scenery that move throughout the theatre, Korsch was challenged by the absence of followspots which, “I would've really loved to have,” he says. “Early on, it was decided they weren't able to fit into the venue since there was no place to put them because there's very low ceiling and a lot of ventilation overhead. Even putting them in the back of the house would have been an extremely flat angle, and you'd spend most of your time lighting the audience.” The solution was to use the Vari-Lite fixtures in the rig as followspots since there was a need for some very involved tracking of specific performers. “It was time consuming and a little tricky, especially in the round. It would have been so much easier to say, ‘spot one pick up this character here,’ rather than spending time cuing the Vari-Lites. [The intense cueing] made the moving lights do what they needed to do — to pick out important characters.” Korsch credits Wholehog® 3 programmer Dave Schultz for turning the Vari-Lites into spotlights.

Those towering scenery wagons — at 18' tall — could have easily been an obstacle for the LD, especially since the lighting trusses were only 3' to 6' above them. “Trying to cover all of that was a challenge without spilling into the audience,” Korsch says. “A large part of my goal was to make the plot work in conjunction with the scenery and not be too obtrusive and have a clean look to it. It helps create the architecture of the environment-Most of my work is in proscenium or truss situations, so working in the round was a unique experience.”

A joint venture of The Walt Disney Company and Hong Kong SAR Government, Hong Kong Disneyland Resort employs 5,000 cast members. The HKSAR Government estimated the first phase of the project will generate a present economic value of HK$148 billion (US$19 billion) in benefits to Hong Kong over a 40-year period. Walt Disney said that the joy of Disney Land is that it should “never be finished.” Over 50 years later, it's nice to see Disney's dream continuing on the other side of the planet, giving joy to an entirely new population, proving that, like the song says, it is a small world after all.

Mark A. Newman is the former managing editor of Live Design (and its parent publications Entertainment Design and Lighting Dimensions magazines).