Those who are old enough might recall the strange and ill-fated production at Disneyland called Light Magic, and those too young will no doubt probably be familiar with the unkind nickname that lives in infamy whenever the subject comes up – Light Tragic.
With the closure of Luigi’s Flying Tires at Disney California Adventure, there has been discussion of late in fan circles regarding other failed attractions or shows from Disneyland Resort’s past. Let’s face it, not everything that any theme park produces is going to be a grand slam. Indeed, theme parks – even Disney theme parks – have their share of failures, whether it be due to projects having their budgets slashed, or simply really bad creative input during development.
Light Magic opened in May of 1997 at Disneyland. The basic premise of the parade was that after dark, when it was time for the Disney characters to say goodnight, Main Street (and Small World Mall) would transform into a bizarre dream-like fairy world filled with pixie dust and sleepy visions of children happy and content. To underline the already-strange mix of Disney characters and in hindsight, truly disturbing-looking fairy creatures, Celtic-styled music was the soundtrack, including renditions of Topsy Turvy from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Step in Time from Mary Poppins, Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid, and probably most misguided of all, the Baroque Hoedown, which fans will recognize as the music backbone of The Main Street Electrical Parade.
The use of Baroque Hoedown in Light Magic hit a very tender nerve with fans, who were still really not happy that Disney had done away with the iconic nighttime parade to make way for Light Magic. Hearing the Baroque Hoedown incorporated into Light Magic – regardless of positive intentions that it be a loving nod to the legacy of the Main Street Electrical Parade – felt like a jab. Each night as that portion of the soundtrack played, a very curious thing happened; people erupted into cheers – and then followed it with jeers as the music reverted to Light Magic’s saccharine theme song, Dream Our Dream. And we’re not talking slight dissatisfaction – Disneyland fans hated Light Magic. Mainstream guests were either indifferent or not wowed by the show at all.
But why all of the dislike and ugliness toward Light Magic? After all, things change at Disney theme parks constantly; new parades come and go. New attractions replace older ones. The parks aren’t museums; they are living canvasses for creative teams to work with and make into fantastical, immersive environments. Why then, was Light Magic so different than anything else, and why now, almost 20 years later (how’s that for some of you older fans?) still held in such contempt?
I think that the biggest issue that Light Magic had, was that it was called out as the replacement for The Main Street Electrical Parade – a nighttime institution that was just as much “Disneyland” as Sleeping Beauty Castle, the Matterhorn, or Pirates of the Caribbean. The synthesized soundtrack was the personification of “summer nights at Disneyland” for multiple generations of visitors. From 1972 until 1996, the Main Street Electrical Parade was an integral part of the Disneyland experience for millions of fans, casual guests and Cast Members alike, in thousands of sparkling lights and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sounds. Under the direction of Disneyland President Paul Pressler – who was another very dark chapter in Disneyland’s history, loathed by fans and industry peers alike – Light Magic was billed as the replacement of the Electrical Parade, and the park made a spectacle of the MSEP’s demise, with a flood of “Glowing Away Forever!” merchandise, special events, and ultimately, individual bulbs from the retired parade units that were sold in small display boxes.
Therein was the biggest mistake, and it was one typical of the type of arrogance that Pressler and his team often displayed – you cannot succeed with a new parade, show, or attraction if the motivation or mandate is to “be bigger and better than…” I firmly believe that. No one set out to make the Main Street Electrical Parade the most beloved Disney parade of all time (and of course, there are many who disliked the MSEP as well – I am not discounting those folks at all); it just kind of evolved into that over time – and it became iconic, with a legacy that love it or hate it, no one can dispute. Light Magic was born of the mandate to be bigger and better that its predecessor – and that was a fatal mistake, because you cannot buy the type of love and adoration the Electrical Parade had; the Light Magic project team was already set up for failure. In a big way.
Another misstep of Light Magic was the introduction of generic, scary-looking fairy characters, which inhabited each of the parade units. Disneyland parades always have incidental characters – that allows for dancers, roller skaters, stilt walkers, and anything else that adds kinetic excitement. However, the fact that the Light Magic fairies, pixies, or whatever they were, were prominent and not attractive really took people by surprise. And not in a good way. There was something unsettling about the way these creatures would playfully interact with children along the parade route – it was just creepy and not endearing. Seeing the Disneyland characters in their pajamas was a bit odd, too – like we had all stayed past an appropriate hour and had intruded on a behind-the-scenes moment when Mickey and Minnie were in their nighties and not company-ready.
The visual technology of Light Magic wasn’t bad; who didn’t love fiber optics in the ’90s? It was used everywhere at theme parks, and at the time, was a really popular effects tool. Today, not so much, especially because no one maintains fiber optic installations properly, if at all. Back in the day though, it was a hot commodity, and Disneyland used the hell out of it in the development of Light Magic to make Main Street sparkle and glow during the show’s climax. Light Magic also used projection, which is still a very popular and effective tool that attraction and show designers use today around the world. As far as the tech goes, Light Magic was amazing. That tech however, was not enough of a counter-balance to the monstrously large, somewhat ugly float units and almost sinister-looking fairies that poured off of the floats when they came to a stop (Light Magic had two show stops – one on Main Street, the other at Small World Mall). In the end, as impressive as the technology was behind the parade, its look and feel, along with the major stigma of being the thing that was created specifically to replace the Main Street Electrical Parade were all too much; from its inception, Light Magic was doomed.
Light Magic wasn’t just a parade. You have to understand it was an event. At a reported cost of $20 million (that would be more than $30 million today to install at the resort), Light Magic changed the physical landscape of Disneyland. The parade route had to be torn up to support the weight of the massive units that were fabricated. The facades of the buildings along Main Street were removed to install approximately 4,500 miles worth of fiber optic cable as well as projectors, and Small World Mall was terraced a la New Orleans Square, to make viewing easier for the throngs of guests that were expected to watch the new parade each night. Tall light towers were installed along Small World Mall, which can still be seen today. Behind Small World Mall, a parade bypass walkway was created, perhaps one of the only smart alterations caused by the installation of Light Magic’s infrastructure. In short, it was a big deal, unlike anything we have ever seen before or since for a parade at Disneyland; I highly doubt we ever will again.
One of the shortest chapters in Disneyland history, Light Magic ran from May to September, 1997. Not even a full four months. That’s it. No mas. So long. Sayonara.
I’ve often been asked what Disneyland could have done differently, and my response has been the same since first witnessing Light Magic in person during its soft-opening nights in Anaheim. Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade was as special and cherished as anything at a theme park can be. Over the years, Disney should have updated its lighting technology to fiber optics and today, LEDs. New units should have immediately been introduced to keep the parade contemporary and “new” each summer. Who didn’t want to see a Be Our Guest unit with Belle and Beast waving at the crowds, or a Colors of the Wind unit that would change colors? Imagine a palace that would “ice over” and shine white-hot to a synthesized version of Let it Go. I’ll do you one better – had Disney returned the Main Street Electrical Parade in the wake of the Light Magic debacle, imagine those fiber optics being put to use and all of Main Street “freezing over” as the Frozen unit passed through? Don Dorsey could have and should have been used to keep the soundtrack updated and fresh, and I guarantee you, Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade 2015 would be bigger and better than ever. Sadly, none of that ever happened and Light Magic was created simply for the sake of change.
With Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary upon us, the park has announced a new nighttime parade, Paint the Night, which is set to debut very soon. Paint the Night takes huge cues from the Main Street Electrical Parade, and uses The Baroque Hoedown as a musical backbone. In short, it’s what the MSEP should have evolved into over the years, and it’s the closest thing we’re ever going to have to getting it back at Disneyland. Paint the Night is not a new concept; it debuted in 2014 at Hong Kong Disneyland to rave reviews, and by all accounts, it looks really good. Disneyland’s version will be very similar, and will feature modern tech such as LEDs and large flat screen displays that will light up the night once again at The Happiest Place on Earth. Unlike Light Magic, fans are actually looking forward to Paint the Night with great enthusiasm; rightfully so, I believe. When the lights along the parade route go out this summer and the familiar strains of The Baroque Hoedown fill the air – we expect cheers of happiness and approving applause as Disneyland begins a new chapter in its legacy of nighttime entertainment.
We’ll be there!
– Rick West