DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.8 – Disneyland’s Tragic Light Magic

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney History, Disney News, Disney Parks

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Published on April 17, 2013 at 3:00 am with 46 Comments

Disney legend, Bob Gurr, knows how to tell a story. And today, he has spun the Wheel of Years and landed on a topic which is . . . well. . . a part of history that Disney would probably like to forget. We’ll let Bob illuminate us.

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1997, so here we go. Everyone remembers the now Classic Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade. Since the early 1970s this wonderful creation has traveled to several Disney Parks and has also inspired similar parade designs in a number of theme parks world wide, some of which are Disney competitors. So how do you top a Classic? Create something even more advanced, since designers have years of operating experience, and the creative equipment and tools have become far more advanced over the years. WRONG!

Sometimes the future appears, but is dead on arrival. The infamous Disneyland Light Magic is just such an example. It came and went so fast, thankfully only a few regular Disneyland guests ever experienced this disaster as it faded quickly into Rocket Rod heaven. The internet has very few images of it’s short life. I worked on it as an outside consultant – ya wanna hear the tale?

My experience over the years as I participated in hundreds of all kinds of projects is that in a simple sense, the most successful ones have a common characteristic – a Champion. By that I mean a person who leads by passion from start to finish. A person who literally “owns” the concept and guides everyone in the practical course to achieve the goal, one who sometimes is the creative person or the administrative leader who takes the creative idea all the way to fruition. But there are an awful lot of projects throughout history that are “committee champion-less”. Light Tragic Parade is one of these.

Fortunately the names of people and organizations involved shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty. I was contracted at the start of the project by a famed engineering organization hired by the Parade group to develop a concept design for a parade float chassis based on a wordy specification. The Parade folks were a collection of various artists, writers, choreographers, show consultants, and theatrical dudes. My impression at the time was that, here we go again – the Committee!

Since the job had a rigid budget, every time something got expensive in design, items were cut. As an example the Parade was originally intended to have quite a few floats that would be scattered along the parade route in show-stop fashion giving almost everyone a chance to see the show. But over the course of my involvement in float chassis development from December 11, 1995 thru April 11, 1996, the number of floats was drastically reduced. This meant that only the guests that were at the widely spaced show stops would see the whole act – not good!

There are two ways to do a concept; by tedious specification writing, followed by conceptual documents which lead to a low bidder to actually design and build it. Or decide to actually do it by designing the production elements using real parts and materials, not hypothetical stuff just to flesh out words into a visual document for a low bidder war. You see what happens – a lot of man hours and time are burned just to get a pile of what’s called bid documents. Had the job been conceived as a committed real job, every man hour would have yielded an actual real collection of production materials. That’s the way Walt Disney taught us!

An example of what I’m ragging about: When I was asked to size a tire and wheel along with some axle components, I was told to “just make them up to fit our words”. Outrageous! One should always source actual parts that exist and can be bought and used in production. Nope, that’s the way of specification writing and bidding. “Don’t worry Bob, the low bidder will go find the real stuff after we give them the contract”. “Good gosh Gurr, finish your drawings and just take the money”.

During the course of the project I attended many meetings at the Disneyland Parade offices, becoming ever more dismayed at the constant revisions to the designs and operational constraints. I remember noting at the time how happy I would be when my part came to an end. It has remained an indelible lesson in what can go wrong when otherwise bright and qualified folks get swept up into a concept than had an unclear idea then descended into an endless stream of changes which lost any clear focus. The short life of Light Tragic was proof of failure supplied by Disneyland’s summer ’97 guests.

While the Parade project started in the fall of 1995, the Parade did not go into service until May 23, 1997. It lasted only few months, ending on September 1, 1997. I watched the TV preview show contracted to a non-Disney low bid TV channel. The show was a combination live presentation edited with pre-recorded clips of the Parade designers proudly showing off their talents and predictions as to how wonderful this latest attraction will be. I vividly remember a little kid when asked what he was about to see, replied “probably not much of nuthin”. Years of effort summed up by a prescient child. You can watch the results for yourself in this video:

And that’s Light Tragic from my side of the story. Surely some of you bright folks saw this parade as well. Would love to hear your comments.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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  • Jeff Heimbuch

    It’s amazing to think of these concepts that made it past the drawing board and into the Parks, despite how mismanged their productions were.

    Glad to know a little more history about Light Magic, as tragic as it was!

    • Gene Sands

      Those who designed it and put it together apparently didn’t understand why Walt was always so concerned about having a good story to support whatever enterprise he was undertaking/

  • KingEric

    WOW Bob! I love hearing the inside story, and knowing it isn’t far off from what fans thought this whole time

  • KyleDixonDesigns

    Wow, Mr. Gurr! Thank you so much for the insider stories of all your experiences. I love reading them!

    So wait…two years of development and the “parade” was just that one float and some skimpy fiber optics? And that was supposed to trump the Main Street Electrical Parade? Or…is there more that just didn’t make it on to the video?

    • That’s it. There was more than one float, but they were all the same. They were essentially just stages. The show was horrible. Pixies doing Riverdance with a tiny bit of new Tinker Bell animation. And the original pixie masks scared the kids so much, they had to give up on them.

  • Kevin Yee

    The wisdom of urging Champions to think in terms of real sourced parts and sustainable maintenance cannot be overstated. I would hope that a wise Champion knows to involve a vertically-assembled team early on–not just dreamers, but also the builders, the maintenance staff, the front line workers, etc… and hears objections and ideas while the clay is still wet.

  • cmerino

    i just want you to know: my kids were 12, 10 and 8. they loved the show. we saw it every time we went, which was almost every evening that Summer. My kids knew where to find what they thought was their best view and what time to pause their fun to watch the parade. thanks for your effforts.

    • If only all audience members were as easy to please, the show wouldn’t have bombed so spectacularly. It was such a huge disappointment that Guest Relations was overrun with complaints nightly, the show was the butt of jokes throughout the theme park industry and had to be closed at huge expense after just one summer. OUCH!

      And it all started with Paul Pressler hosting a passholder event and essentially announcing that the show wasn’t ready for prime time. But they never really fixed anything.

      My friends and I would go every weekend, just so we could watch the stunned responses of many guests . . . “They had Electrical Parade glow away forever for this?!”

  • rstar

    I attended the Annual Passholder Preview of the parade, which was a ticketed event. I remember after it was over, my wife and I just looked at each other with “What the heck was THAT???” then we noticed a long line of people a city hall demanding their money back. The story that the City Hall CMs were giving them was that it was only a “dress rehersal” and still had to work the bugs out. Ok, so you are going to CHARGE people to watch a dress rehersal of a show not worthy to be seen yet? Good plan….

    I also remember hearing about a earlier preview for media and family with the early “flair like” version of Tinker Bell. It was a pyrotechnic on a wire attachet to the parade float. It broke loose, shot around on the ground and headed right at the crowd. Security was chasing it down like a greased pig at the county fair to stop it before it hurt someone. It then it got stuck in a track on Main Street and they stomped on it to put it out while the children screamed with horror on their face “No! Don’t kill Tinker Bell!!” The device never returned. At least that’s what I heard…..

  • Wreckless Abrandon

    It’s disappointing when great ideas get stomped into the ground by laziness of management. Yes, it’s great to take chances, but when the original idea is ruined by “just make up something to fit” and that kind of mentality? Ruins the point of taking chances.

  • Second Star

    Light Magic was running during our first trip with our daughters, 5 & 7, and it was my wife and my first visit back in many years, so we might be consider noobs, but… It may have been because a CM who recommended an area and time to watch the parade, but my girls enjoyed the show. I too, enjoyed it, but, that may have had more to do with the music and my Celtic background.

    Hearing Bob’s recount of its development, and the reference to Rocket Rods reminds me of the story I heard Tony tell of the development of that ride. I think the problem can be traced directly to the top and Michael Eisner’s being a cheap SOB. We all witness that again a couple years later across the esplanade at the Disneyfied carnival. Oh well, life goes on…

  • DubiousEndeavors

    I am one of the few fans of the show. I was 13 the summer it premiered and we watched it 3-4 times. I liked the music arrangements (still do as I listen to the soundtrack at work), the character’s costumes (seeing them in their pj’s was fun). But one of the missteps conceptually was that it automatically dated itself with the Riverdance business. It was big at the time, but I think most people knew it wasn’t going to last forever. It isn’t timeless like the successful Disney Park shows.

    I think this show REALLY could have been something great if there was more care than corporate put into it.

    I always chuckle a little when people get mad when they are told a preview is a dress rehearsal, because that is EXACTLY WHAT IT IS! The show isn’t set until it officially opens, and even then there can be changes. Should I be angry that I sat through YEARS of Fantasmic performances where the dragon was a head on a stick and now they have Murphy?

    Thank goodness those people weren’t invited to a WORKSHOP performance!

    • If it were sold as a dress rehearsal, that would be one thing, but it wasn’t. It was only when Paul Pressler called it a “Dress Rehearsal” on opening night that we realized something was wrong. And they didn’t really fix anything after that “Dress Rehearsal” either. It was just as bad the next weekend, and the weekend after that . . . right up until it closed.

  • eicarr

    Thanks for sharing. I love disaster stories. I remember that Riverdance fad it ripped off started to die just as it opened.

  • chynadoll035

    I don’t remember this!

  • DuckyDelite

    What the what? If they were doing a stage show, why not just create a fixed stage show somewhere? I feel sorry for the audience that camped out on main street and couldn’t see anything for 20 minutes.

    I remember seeing ads for this and really wanted to go, but it closed before I had a chance to see it. It does look like there were some interesting concepts with the lighting on the buildings and stage, but how was this a parade?

  • justjohn

    Man, those fairy masks were truly horrifying. Thanks for the story Bob!

  • Big D

    I worked at the popcorn wagons in Towne Square and the hub most nights during Light Magic, so I probably saw it 50 times or so. The stages themselves were actually quite impressive, but they show they designed for the stages was atrocious. First, no one understood the rolling stage concept. People expected a parade. I remember vividly people trying to line up in front of Tomorrowland or the Matterhorn and not understanding why they were being told they wouldn’t see anything at all from those locations. I also remember them parking Light Magic in between the Matterhorn and the Fantasyland bathrooms for like 15 minutes or so between the showing in Fantasyland and the showing in Main Street. They turned out all of the lights in that area so it was completely dark, I guess so that you couldn’t see the pixies hanging out in between shows. I never understood why they did that. I also remember that the pixies were supposed to get all of the kids that were in the crowd to come out and dance with them and be a part of the show, but the kids were too scared of the pixies and wouldn’t do it. Towards the end they did eventually get rid of the masks, and that helped, but it was too late. Also, the story was not clear at all as to what was supposed to be going on. I sort of got that this was supposed to be like Mickey Mouse’s dream or something, but it must have been a messed up dream. Maybe Mickey had some bad hot dogs from Pluto’s Dog House or something. But the most memorable part of Light Magic was the parade of custodial workers and their vacuum cleaners that came out afterwords to vacuum up the confetti. Guest control struggled every night to keep people off of Main Street after the parade / show was over so that the custodians could vacuum up the confetti and not run over anyone. And man, where those vacuums loud! To their credit through, they were pretty fast and usually they got in, vacuumed up the confetti, and got out in just a few minutes.

  • Disneykin Kid

    Yeah, it sounds like Light Magic started out as a high concept by theatrical people who were trying to ‘improve’ Disney. I remember the scary pixie masks, whoever came up with them probably thought they were ‘artsy’.

    Concept first, then throwing it to the low bidders sounds like a recipe for disaster. I applaud Blue Sky concepts, but they should be followed closely with reality (In this case real sourced parts). And I was never a fan of the show stops, maybe with the Lion King parade it was good, but I prefer a regular parade.