If you haven't heard already (and sure you have if you follow this blog and follow the news, because it was all over), on Saturday evening, during the second, 10:30 performance of FANTASMIC! at Disneyland Park, the dragon Maleficent audio-animatronic suffered a catastrophic malfunction and unexpectedly caught fire during the climactic scene when she ignites the Rivers of America. The show was stopped several moments afterwards, and all cast members were evacuated off Tom Sawyer Island as Disneyland and Anaheim Fire Department crews worked to extinguish the blaze. Guests along the Rivers of America and nearby attractions that could be impacted by migrating smoke were also evacuated. Fortunately, there were no injuries to note.
This was a sudden and saddening end to one of the most beloved and simultaneously teased figures in Disney entertainment. This Maleficent animatronic, dubbed "Murphy" both derisively (in the beginning) and lovingly (as time passed and problems became less frequent), premiered back in 2009, replacing the original "dragon on a stick" figure that was used for FANTASMIC!'s climactic scene where Maleficent transforms into a fearsome beast that sets fire to the Rivers of America before Mickey vanquishes it. That season, Disney ran a big advertising campaign dubbed "Summer Nightastic" promoting an enhanced FANTASMIC!, but problems with testing and consistent operation plagued the new dragon's debut for several months. Even after it did make it onto the show, the dragon frequently suffered programming mishaps, often failing to properly breathe fire or stalling.
Accordingly, guests and the internet started nicknaming the AA "Murphy" after Murphy's Law, since it seemed like anything bad that could happen to this figure did. It wasn't until many months later that the dragon started operating more smoothly and consistently, and ever since then, it has generally been pretty reliable and functional. Though it still might misfire or fail to fire from time to time, Murphy worked and became the most spectacular part of an already incredibly exciting and visually stunning show.
The investigation into exactly what happened last Saturday evening is still unfolding, of course, and out of an abundance of caution, Disney announced the temporary suspension of all "similar" fire effects in all Disney park shows worldwide. This doesn't mean all fire is canceled, due to the vaguely worded "similar" qualifier, and it doesn't mean that those being removed will permanently be removed, or that there is anything wrong with any other show. But safety is always first, and the decision is understandable--though maybe disappointing for those making upcoming trips who may not see full versions of their favorite Disney nighttime spectaculars.
The abundance of videos online do show that when Maleficent tried to breathe fire on its first try (she also breathes fire a second time later, during her death knell), the fire did not completely ignite the spray down to the river. Instead, it was a half dud, coming out maybe a dozen or so feet from the mouth. In addition, fluid was seen noticeably leaking from the dragon's mouth immediately after the attempted flamethrowing, and it wasn't long before the dragon itself caught fire. No doubt the leaking oil or hydraulic fluid (whichever it was--something flammable for sure) engaged a spark or was lit by the dragon's internal fire effect. But why the malfunction occurred period will be a matter of forensic detective work.
In the meantime, it's unknown how long FANTASMIC! will be down. It's still a supremely popular show, and it's doubtful that the park will keep the show down just because one of its most integral features is burned beyond use. FANTASMIC! does have a B-show mode for the dragon that utilizes projections. With summer coming up, I imagine park officials will get the show back up and running with adjustments for that scene.
In the meantime, here are some photos of the last two times I photographed FANTASMIC!, last August, after it had returned from its pandemic closure. This is my absolute all-time favorite Disney show, and I'm saddened to see what happened on Saturday night. But hopefully, this leads to the design, engineering, and production of an event more technologically advanced and safer dragon that can bring FANTASMIC! to even greater heights. Heck, third time's the charm, right?
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