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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  • Baloo

    nice article, i remember the preview and did find the whole show odd but the float was cool to watch.

    I remember hearing about two other show/parade concepts that never made it off the idea phase that sounded quite interesting and which they could have happened.

    One of them involved large size Dinosaurs rolling through main street and another one supposedly themed to aliens I can’t remember what promotion that one was going to be linked to but if i remember correctly it involved a projection or object in the sky to look like a space ship that would land in tomorrowland eventually making innoventions look like it was a space ship. then Aliens would come out from backstage.

  • Joan Finder

    I find it interesting that the comments above from families who liked the parade were first time visitors with children. Our family also loved this parade. My husband and I had visited Disneyland a few times prior, but it was a first visit for our 5 year old daughter. She still remembers that she danced with pixies and the Genie poured pixie dust in her hands. When we learned the parade had been cancelled, she proclaimed when she grew up she would be the President of Disney just so she could bring it back. She is still working towards that goal and hopes to begin her Disney career with the college internship next year, so who knows…a tweaked and improved version of Light Magic may still live someday if she gets her way.

    Although I am interested in the production problems described in the article, I think the first sentence: “Sometimes the future appears, but is dead on arrival.” also hints at another problem. Disneyland audiences, particularly the strong vocal volume of annual passholders who carry so much more influence in California than in Florida, were not ready for Light Magic. First of all, it replaced the much beloved Electrical Parade. Following that act would have doomed almost any parade. It left impossibly big shoes to fill. In fact, the roar of the audience at the nod to the Baroque Hoedown in the musical score proved their hearts were still longing for the recently departed. I also recall complaints about the air cannons “littering” the trees and streets with confetti, although this feature has since become quite common in Disney shows and parades. But the element which seemed to most upset the crowd: the fact that the parade stopped for staged performances, has actually been implemented in many of the successive parades, including the parade for the 50th anniversary celebration. If Light Magic had been a few generations down the line, rather than immediately following the end of MSEP, or perhaps even if it had premiered in Walt Disney World, I believe that it would have been accepted, if not beloved. Hence, the complaints mostly from the “regulars”, while those of uswith open minds to whom Disneyland was a fresh experience, –and children who didn’t know the difference–found much delight in Light Magic.

    I love the music from this parade, and believe with some work the parade could have been salvaged. I am saddened mostly that this parade has become legend as an epic failure. Even those who never saw it will go on record aout the embarrassing “tragedy” for Disney, which means that–unlike the California Adventure disaster– it will never be fixed and given another chance. Unless, of course, my daughter’s wishes upon a star come true…and she rises to the Presidency of Disney! We can dream our dreams forever…

  • danyoung

    I was lucky enough to see Light Magic a couple of times that summer, and I have to say that I enjoyed it for what it was. From reading about it, I knew to get a viewing spot where the parade was going to stop – in my case, in front of small world. On the first showing I saw, which was probably in the first week of its run, the float stopped about 2 feet off its mark, making the projection from a nearby light tower about 2 feet out of frame. Odd, but overall I thought the show was pretty good. And I really enjoyed the music, and listened to the track many times on CD.

    But with all that said, I understand the problems the parade had, and the HUGE shoes it had to fill by replacing the beloved MSEP. It didn’t much surprise me to see it glow away at the end of the summer. Still, I would have enjoyed it if the parade was given an off season to fix some of the problems and then come back for a 2nd summer.

    • It could have been fixed only by building a bunch of new floats and having them all roll the whole way down the parade route like a Parade should. They could have done a short parade stop every so often to show off the Tinker Bell animation. But it was just a TERRIBLE idea for a “Parade” which isn’t really a parade and which is a stage show that you could only see in certain spots, and which scared the hell out of kids. ;-)

  • Tanthus

    Ugh…Been in projects like this before. Great article, but painful to read, having experienced working on successful projects and ones like “Light Magic”.

  • Crazyunclesteve

    No need to bash the show, pretty much everyone knows it didn’t fly. I attended the A/P preview night. I stood there thinking “what has River-dance got to do with Disney?”. Yeah, I was disappointed but ya gotta remember, YOU’RE STILL IN DISNEYLAND! Just how disappointed can you get in the Happiest Place on Earth?

  • JiminyCricketFan

    What a great article! So much that should be learned from the experience. Light Magic really damaged the Disney image. So much hype was caused by telling the public that the Electrical parade was going away. So much expectation was created by Disney because Disney had always toped itself, rides became better and parades better.


    1) Just because there is something new does not make it better.

    2) A commette has never created any great work of art. The Mona Lisa was not created by a committee, nor was Beethoven’s fifth, nor was Disneyland.

    3) Skimping on the budget ends up wasting a great deal of money. Quality will win out and last longer in the end, example Pirates.

  • techskip

    Not only do I remember this show. I remember the preview party. I remember the line for City Hall. And I remember Pressler using the lame excuse that “every show has bugs” when it broke and didn’t make it down Main Street.

    It was the longest line I’ve ever seen in front of City Hall…

    “tonight… in the parking lot… Brake Light Magic… 40,000 cars, 2 exits, lots of flashing lights, lots of colorful language. Play your own music, drive your own floats, HOURS of entertainment for the whole family”

  • RodeToad

    Very entertaining (I’m still laughing at “rocket rod heaven”!) and informative. Thank you for sharing.

  • Bruce Bergman

    Bob, I was there for the Passholder Premiere – Umm…, “the First Dress Rehearsal of what we hope will be…” (I have that track full of wiggle-words saved here somewhere.) And I was there at the end, when to be totally fair it was actually a nice show. Not up to the usual Disney Standards, but if they’d have brought out in May what they had cleaned it up to by September, and buffed it some more, it would have survived. At least a few years.

    Still would have required some effort to fix it up into something that met the lofty standards of MSEP – topping that act is a tough task, but you never know. 16 years later and now that we have the individually addressable RGB LED’s and enough computer power to literally cloak a Doodlebug in a full-motion video screen, I think it’s long overdue. ;) Let’s Do It!

    But even though it really wasn’t ready for Prime Time, they were locked into a timetable for the Vons, KLOS (IIRC) and Passholder events and the Public Premiere date. And nobody had the ‘intestinal fortitude’ to pull the plug or push back the dates.

    As to the Premier Night – Al had a good spot saved at Small World Mall, and I was assigned to drag Tony Baxter over to it, too. Bruce Gordon and David Mumford (and a few others from Imagineering I didn’t know names) tagged along. Turns out this was their first time seeing it too.

    They start, loop, stop the music… A minute of silence… Restart the intro track, and the stages s-l-o-w-l-y start out the gates, music loops twice more as they are jockeying into position. Then finally they get underway – and you can see they had wonderful Fiber-Optics on the floats. Dim or bright Blue only – turns out they never finished it, they just bunched all the fibers into one chunk and stuck one blue light there to get them on. The fibers wouldn’t be sorted out and programmed till halfway through the summer.

    The costumes weren’t too bad, but the masks on the Pixies looked like something from the year-round Halloween Store off the freeway… The choreography smacked of a kindergarten play. The people who ‘spoke’ ASL panned it, the Cast was trying to Sign the lyrics and didn’t get it – they were mumbling in ASL.

    And as I watched the train wreck unfolding in slow motion…. I turned to look at the Imagineeers, and their expressions matched our own. Deer in the Headlights. ({Slim Pickens:} “What in the Wide Wide World of Sports were they thinking?“)

    From what I’m told, it went the same way when they went down and did the Main Street run too. Not an auspicious beginning.

  • MainSt1993

    The first time I saw this was at one of the Cast Member previews. The first thing that crossed my mind was that there were these great big floats flying down Main Street in the dark. Somebody’s going to get hurt! Apparently missing from the committee was anyone from Operations.

    Then we get this half-hearted Riverdance, presented by Pixies (before any effort to make Pixies popular), and the taps from their shoes were piped, not live. And the characters are in their pajamas? Have we overstayed our welcome? Then came nap time for the performers, where crummy screens rose and terrible projections showed a montage of recent Disney films, but it wasn’t really the films. Oh, but then the UNICEF children – now it all makes sense!!

    Next comes a playful percussion section. Like the tap dancers, the drummers can’t play either. Really Disney? Then they taunt us with Baroque Hoedown. RUDE. Then it all goes away. The only change I saw was the change from mylar confetti to paper confetti.

    But I digress…at least we got the Light Magic Memorial Promenade by IASM!

  • Ravjay12

    Great article Bob! I was also a cast member the summer of Light Magic. The floats themselves were truly impressive. Had they replaced the Main Street Electrical Parade with new floats using fiber optics, that would have been incredible. It would have satisfied the people who truly loved the parade and brought it up to today’s technology. The part of the show I was most impressed with were the Main Street buildings that also had the fiber optics imbedded into them. The stopping of the floats worked well for the Lion King parade so I guess they thought the night time version would be a good idea. The part I hated most of all was the mylar confetti that was shot not once, but twice each time it stopped!! Man was that stuff hard to vacuum up!! Even when they got smart and switched to paper confetti, it still was EVERYWHERE! Years past and you still found it tucked away in crevices and flower beds throughout the park. Its a shame how badly they handled the “dress rehearsal” night. I know because I was there working. It was an absolute disaster and total disregard for all the Annual Passholders who paid money to see a completely inadequate replacement for a beloved classic. Why change something when it is working so well? Why lie to everyone by telling them it would never return to Disneyland and have it show up again just across the street??

  • mikecov

    I was at the Annual Passholders preview and had just recently purchased a souvenir light bulb used on one of the Main Street Electrical Parade floats. After seeing this fiasco I went to City Hall, complained and offered to give back the light bulb so that the old parade could return.

  • disneylandfan8

    Another interesting tale told by the fascinating Mr. Gurr.

    Sadly, I never had the chance to see this parade, and from the sound of it, I didn’t miss anything. I do have a pin somewhere in my collection though.

    Thank you for illuminating us on this short-lived event. Light Tragic, indeed.

  • chesirecat

    Nice article Mr. Gurr. Though Light Magic was panned by APers, and I certainly didn’t like the generic River Dance theme, I was 100% sure that they’d use the fiber optics on Main Street Windows to enhance the Main Street Electrical Parade. It looked fantastic, in my opinion, and could have been used to plus MSEP. Have no idea why Disney never used that tech again.

    If a parade had the tech of Light Magic, and the Disney characters and as many floats as MSEP and if it didn’t stop but was a regular parade, it would be a big hit.

  • indyjones

    I remember seeing the annual passholder preview. I think it was about 1 minute into the show when we all looked at each other and said, “Wow! This is really awful.” It’s hard to believe that anyone involved couldn’t simply watch the show and see that is simply wasn’t going to work.
    What’s worse is that it happened again with the building of DCA(at least someone who understood that stepped up and fixed it) and will probably happen again.