In October of 1996, after decades of wowing
guests old and young alike, Disneyland said goodbye to the Main Street Electrical Parade. It was a fan favorite, but the parade was
showing signs of age and in an increasingly competitive industry it was time to create
something new and exciting in order to keep moving forward. That something would be Disneyland’s Light
Magic. Obviously Disney had to step up their game. They weren’t just creating a replacement
to last year’s throwaway parade. They were designing the follow-up to the Main
Street Electrical Parade. It was a staple of Disneyland, and so it had some pretty big shoes to fill. So Disney went all out when it came to the
concept and technology of Light Magic. Rather than a traditional parade that featured
numerous floats that never stopped moving, Light Magic would instead be the offspring
of both parade and stage performance. Touted as a “streetacular”, it would feature
four massive 80-foot-long floats that would come to a complete stop before playing out
the full 20-minute performance for audiences. This would occur once by it’s a small world
and then once more along Main Street USA. With a cast of 125 costumed performers, it
was a hefty step up from the Main Street Electrical Parade’s 80 or so dancers and characters. However it wasn’t just the format that
would be new. Partnering with fiber-optic specialists, Lazarus
Lighting Design Inc, these floats were going to be technical marvels. The parade utilized over 2,500 miles of fiber-optic
cable, over 1500 strobe lights, 132 robotic lights, and 185 air cannons that would be
capable of blowing smoke and confetti. Disney even went as far as redesigning the
area outside of it’s a small world in order to prepare for the show and improve the viewing
experience for guests. It was bigger, it was high-tech, and it was
without a doubt different from the Main Street Electrical Parade, and all of that came with
a price because the estimated budget for Disneyland’s Light
Magic was 20 million dollars. They were betting big. So big that Disneyland’s Chief of Entertainment
at the time, Mike Davis, was quoted saying “We hope it’s the longest running show
in the history of show business.” Talk about realistic expectations. The cutting edge nature of Light Magic didn’t
stop with the parade itself. Even the press kits used to promote the new
show were a step up from the usual Disney Parks methods. You see, this was the first press kit they
distributed that was digital, using a CD-ROM. Taking a cue from the other divisions, Disney
Parks loaded the CDs with video clips, interviews, photos, and parts of the soundtrack. To introduce Light Magic to the public, Disney
decided to host a $25 ticketed preview night for Disneyland passholders. On May 13th, 1997 nearly 20,000 people filled
the parade route and were introduced to Disneyland’s Light Magic for the very first time… and
it was awful. It was reported that some guests hated it
so much that they were actually booing at the performance, and after the parade guest
relations were forced to deal with a number of refund requests. There were of course technical glitches and
mishaps that were to be expected with a test run of the parade, but beyond that the parade
was criticized for being everything from confusing to just plain boring. The streetacular was a performance that featured
fairies and popular Disney characters who would dance to Celtic arrangements of both
original music and popular Disney tunes. The plot, if you could call it a plot, followed
the fairies as they woke up and danced. A storm brews over the characters, but Tinker
Bell shows up and clears it away with some pixie dust. Then there’s a two-minute projected sequence
and then the characters return to… dance some more. They play some percussion and then… that’s
really it. The technical glitches were eventually ironed
out, but even after it’s May 23rd public debut, Light Magic was critically panned as
not only a sad follow-up to the beloved Main Street Electrical Parade, but just as a bad
parade in general. Meanwhile by comparison, Disneyland’s daytime
parade, the Hercules Victory Parade, was a hit. So much so that Disney began to lean on it
when it came to advertising the park in the summer of 1997. When Labor Day weekend rolled around the Light
Magic ended it’s summer run, and just a month later Disney would announce that it
was to go on a two-year hiatus to in order to be retooled and fixed up for the summer
season of the year 2000. Instead of Light Magic, the 1998 summer season
would instead feature a parade promoting the upcoming animated feature film, Mulan, taking
a cue from Hercules’ success. The Mulan parade would eventually go on to
be a crowd pleaser, and at a reported fifth of the cost of Light Magic. That following February, when PKR Consulting
reported on the hospitality industry in the Orange County area, they specifically attributed
Light Magic’s poor reception and word of mouth to the 1% drop in hotel occupancy that
year. If that wasn’t bad enough labor disputes
caused Lazarus Lighting Design to sue Disney. They argued that Disney owed them over half
a million dollars in unpaid labor, and demanded a million dollars in damages and lost business. They claimed that Disney provided storyboards
for the parade just three months prior to it’s debut, and made costly changes as late
at 16 days before the public would see it. They also claimed that Disney blamed them
for the poor reception and glitches, hurting their reputation as a business. But really, Light Magic’s shortcomings had
little to do with faulty projectors or technical snafus. Disney aimed to create a show that stood out
as different from the Main Street Electrical Parade, and while they succeeded at being
different, they didn’t adapt to those differences. A parade in many ways is fleeting. Floats approach, and just as quickly they’re
gone. We’re drawn to the spectacle of the float
design and the characters on them. Parades might have a theme, but they seldom
need a plot. However once you stop those floats for twenty
minutes, well, it’s not a parade anymore. It’s a stage performance. That’s when spectacle and design take a
backseat to elements like story and pacing and theme and that’s what Light Magic was
lacking. Sure it had fancy floats, but when there’s
nothing engaging happening on them, they’re useless. The summer of 2000 would eventually roll around
and as many expected, Light Magic was nowhere to be found. Disney quietly let the parade fade into the
past. For them, it was a costly lesson and cautionary
tale about what happens when the core elements of entertainment are pushed aside for fancy
bells and whistles. It pays to mix things up once in a while,
but sometimes you can stray too far from the very thing that pulls people in to begin with.