Barnette Ricci has enjoyed a long, illustrious career with The Walt Disney Company, creating all manner of live entertainment to delight and inspire park guests during the past 40-plus years. While she’s choreographed a number of legendary parades (including the Main Street Electrical Parade) and staged performances for the grand openings of Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland, she’s perhaps best known as the original show director of Fantasmic!—the epic, good vs. evil, music and fireworks spectacular that has filled the night sky at Disneyland for two decades.
To celebrate the show’s big anniversary, we recently sat down with Barnette—who currently holds the title of vice president and show director of Special Events for The Walt Disney Studios—to talk about what went into creating such an iconic piece of Disneyland history.
What else had you worked on for the Disney parks, prior to creating Fantasmic!?
Barnette Ricci: I created and directed the original Kids of the Kingdom [a live show at Disneyland in the late 1960s]. The [park’s] Entertainment vice president at the time was Bob Jani. He asked me to become staff choreographer for Disneyland. From there, I did all the Kids of the Kingdom shows for all the parks. And I choreographed the parades, and then I became the director of all the parades, including the Christmas parade, America on Parade, and the Main Street Electrical Parade. I also directed the Diamond Horseshoe Revue and Golden Horseshoe Revue… and worked on the grand openings of Walt Disney World, World Showcase, and Tokyo Disneyland.
Was Fantasmic! the first show done on the river at Disneyland?
BR: We had done many river shows… We used to do as a regular event on the water, Disneyland and All that Jazz, where we’d have jazz musicians and name talent. We’d put a stage at the end of Tom Sawyer Island with a band or an orchestra; we did some really extravagant shows for many, many years.
When was the idea for a new nighttime show at Disneyland first discussed?
BR: At the beginning of 1991… When it came time to come up with something for the summer of ’92, I was asked to come up with a creative concept for something huge that year that would bring guests in the gate. I thought of our unique venue on the river, and I started to do some research on technologies.
How did the idea to project images on water come about?
BR: I found these water fountain screens that shoot the water into the air in a sheet and you could rear-project onto it. We found this technology in France. After looking at it, I said, “This is ideal.”
What went into creating those water screens?
BR: The technology was shooting the water at a great force against a metal plate—a great force to make it go that high… We had to rig it up to see if it was going to work. Of course it did.
Was there anything special you had to do to the projected images?
BR: With the animation, if it was a brisk movement, you couldn’t tell what was going on because the water gives movement to the image. So some of the images had to be slowed down to make it work. It was a long project.
What was it like to test the show?
BR: The timing of everything… It [had to be] exactly “on.” Many, many, many nights—months and months out here in the winter in the freezing cold, after the park closed at night. We were graveyard shift for months. You think you get used to it, but you never do.
What’s the story behind the show’s original name, Imagination River Spectacular?
BR: The whole premise is about Mickey’s imagination, which is why everything can be so fantastic, like in a dream. So I was thinking, “Imagine,” “Imagination…” It’s Mickey’s imagination that creates all these things that you’re looking at. So that’s the theme of the show. And I wrote the song along with [composer] Bruce Healey; I wrote the lyrics, “Use your imagination…” The show was going to be called Imagination.
Why the name change?
BR: At the time, Bob McTyre was the head of [Disneyland] Entertainment. He said he felt like it needed a catchier [title]. We chatted about it a lot. Since there’s footage of Fantasia, and Mickey ends up as Sorcerer Mickey, we started playing with names that had something to do with Fantasia. I believe it was [Bob McTyre] who came up with the name Fantasmic!. I said, “It’s a great name, but we’re keeping the song!” I still have a T-shirt that says Imagination.
Since you helped develop the show, were you able to incorporate your own favorite Disney characters?
BR: Mickey has always been a favorite of mine. And the princesses on the barges. I love the electrical lights on the barges, and the “love” sequence… with Beauty and the Beast and Ariel and Eric—and Snow White. She’s a huge favorite of mine. I grew up going to all the Disney movies.
What about that iconic Fantasmic! score?
BR: I’m very, very proud of it. I know Bruce Healey is as well. That heroic theme. We listened to a lot of different temp tracks of other scores to get a feeling. And then that fanfare Bruce came up with—I’m really proud of it. I love being somewhere and hearing it. “Oh, Fantasmic!” It’s so cool!
Did anything stand in the way of the show’s opening?
BR: I remember the rain delaying us.
What was it like to present the show to an audience for the first time?
BR: You work on something for that long, you think it’s great. But you don’t know. You lose your objectivity. The first time an audience saw it, I think it was a cast member preview… their reaction was huge. And I remember standing in the middle of the crowd going, “Wow! They really, really are responding to this thing like gangbusters.” I got chills. It was just amazing. It’s hard to describe the feeling. I guess it really works.
Were you nervous during that first performance?
BR: I’m always nervous. I get butterflies for any show, big or small. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t be in the business.
Any funny stories from the creation/rehearsal process?
BR: I remember the ducks. The river has a lot of ducks floating around out there. They were very surprised the first time we turned the fire on! Fortunately, none of them got burned.
Technically speaking, what were some of the challenges in getting the production up and running?
BR: Draining the river and putting in all the gas pipelines… building the structure, and working on the animation of the stage opening up for the dragon to come out. The systems that were used to create all of that were very complicated. It was a very complicated show—it still is. In those days it was a lot more difficult. Today, things have been developed so it’s a lot more computerized.
Who created the original fireworks for Fantasmic!?
BR: A company up in Northern California, near Sacramento. It was amazing because we would go up there and they [had] a big field near these hills. They laid out the entire expanse of what the river would be, on this field. They set all the pyrotechnics so we could see the effects from the distances the audience would see them from, and get the timing from ignition to seeing it [explode]. A lot of calculations [needed] to be made. That was a project unto itself.
Any stories from testing those fireworks?
BR: The funny thing is, in these hills, sometimes cows would come over… They wouldn’t stay long. You’re out there in the nighttime in a remote area with nothing for miles, so the fireworks don’t upset anybody. And then you’d hear the ding-a-ling of a cowbell, and we’d have to wait for the cow to clear out before we could shoot the fireworks.
Beauty and the Beast hadn’t yet opened when Fantasmic! was first created. Were those characters always part of the production?
BR: Beauty and the Beast was in from the beginning. I think we knew it was going to be the next classic. We wanted a romantic section at the show.
Is it true the show was only supposed to run for five years?
BR: Yes… [but] if it could last five, it could last 10. There’s a difference between doing something for a summer run or something that lasts five years. It had to be sturdy. It was a lovely surprise for us that audiences didn’t want it to go away.
What happened when you brought the show to what is now Disney’s Hollywood Studios?
BR: There are certain things that Walt Disney World doesn’t have that Disneyland has. We couldn’t do it on the river there in the park because they don’t have the same kind of viewing area that we have here [in Anaheim]. They don’t have the Mark Twain [riverboat]. That’s when they decided to build a facility [for the show] in Walt Disney World.
What’s the main difference between the shows?
BR: At Disneyland, it’s a surprise. You’re out in this area all day long, and at night it magically becomes something else. At Walt Disney World, we didn’t have that luxury—so when you come to the facility to see Fantasmic!, you know why you’re there.
Were there technical challenges unique to Florida?
BR: Because it’s a stadium, people are sitting high. The original size of the [water] screen looked smaller than we would want it to because of that. It’s a different facility. They needed different technologies in more than one way. Different companies were used. It was years later… I do believe we wanted the screens to be bigger because of the way the audience would perceive the show. And I remember going into all those different places that were building the elements and testing, testing, testing.