Orlando theme parks cast spell when the sun goes down

The lights from Dumbo light up Storybook Village in the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. (Walt Disney Co.)

The summer heat and summer crowds can be a big deterrent to taking on Orlando's theme parks, but there's quite a show to be had when the sun goes down.

Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando all have extended summer hours allowing some respite from the oppressing heat and humidity that reigns over midday, and seeing the parks lit up in their nighttime splendor makes it worth the visit.

Here's a park-by-park guide to what to check out when the sun goes down:

Magic Kingdom


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Cinderella Castle is the centerpiece, always lit up with grandeur after dark, but the Haunted Mansion takes on a special eeriness as well. The New Fantasyland, though, especially the Storybook Circus with its dueling Dumbo rides make for quite a show.

The Main Street Electrical Parade rolls out twice on most nights through the end of August with shows at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.

And every night this summer features some loud booms as the Wishes nighttime spectacular commands your attention for a 12-minute show featuring a color-shifting Cinderella Castle, Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy touting the benefits of believing and Tinker Bell making a memorable appearance flying through the air. Showtimes are 10 p.m. most summer nights, with some 9 p.m. shows in late August. The Fourth of July, though, takes over through Sunday, July 7, with Disney's Celebrate America! -- A Fourth of July Concert in the Sky, with an extended fireworks display set to a patriotic musical score.

Best place to catch the sunset: Dumbo -- gets you up above the crowd a bit, or Splash Mountain, but your view is fleeting, and you may be distracted plunging down into the water and all.

Epcot

There's nothing like a giant golf ball lit up in the sky to keep your bearings. The geodesic dome of Spaceship Earth is always visible and lit up at night. Be sure to check out the fountain show on your way to the World Showcase.

One of the best things about Epcot is the illusion of visiting a foreign nation, which gets even more realistic as night falls. There's a serenity to milling about Italy or France, perhaps sipping on a nice glass of red that washes away the notion that you're at a theme park with 15,000 of your closest friends.

The end of the night at Epcot features IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth with a combination of pyrotechnics and lasers, and a giant floating Earth in which the continents are a giant video screen as Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger among other things) narrates your way through the past, present and future of humanity.

The show is at 9 p.m. most nights, but some nights at 10 p.m. through August.

Best place to catch the sunset: Mexico, Norway and China are all on the east side of the World Showcase, so they have a great view of the setting sun in the west. Make it an evening and enjoy a waterside view for the sunset and IllumiNations from Mexico's La Cantina de San Angel.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney's Hollywood Studios is kind of a mishmash after dark. A lot of the park becomes like a dark alleyway, especially along back by Star Wars and the American Idol Experience, while other parts, such as the shops around Sunset Boulevard (which runs southwest to northeast actually) are engaging.

The best nighttime show though is Fantasmic!, which has two shows -- 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. -- most nights. The rest of the park is open til 10 p.m. on those nights, so the majority of parkgoers flock to the final show.

Visually, it's 30 minutes of water, lasers and fireworks with Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey Mouse as your guide. Animation projected onto sheets of water are one of its most memorable features, and the open-air stadium for the show makes it so everyone gets the same show. Of course, that means everyone is making their way out to the parking lot after, too, so that can be challenging in a lemmings kind of way.

Best place to catch the sunset: Tower of Terror, but your view is limited time magic, so to speak. For a less temporal sunset experience, even though closer to the ground, try grabbing a treat from Dinosaur Gertie's Ice Cream of Extinction and then grabbing a seat near Hollywood and Vine on the east side of Echo Lake. You at least get a view of the Fantasia hat. Of course eating inside the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater might give you the best evening sky, albeit false, but it does have a great drive-in movie screen.

Disney's Animal Kingdom