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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  • Kritter

    I LOVED Light Magic. LOVED it.

  • dazyhill

    My family went to the AP Light Magic Premier too. I remember being excited for the parade and buying a bunch of souvenirs as soon as I entered the park. I don’t remember much about the parade other than thinking it was truly bizarre and awful. I suppose the inclusion of Baroque Hoedown was supposed be an homage, it felt more like an insult. At one point, the entire float went black and the music died. Oops. That was followed by a huge round of applause. My memory is usually pretty good, but I have very little memories about that night. I guess I have blocked it out of my mind, lol.
    My family was among those who requested a refund that night. This was not a cheap event and it was not like my parents were made of money. I don’t regret doing this. I didn’t get a chance to return the souvenirs. I later sold most of them (at a loss) on eBay years later.
    The best part of the night? Getting to meet Tony Baxter and look at WDI models!

  • Badger

    Thanks, Bob, for sharing your experiences with this peculiar piece of Disneyland history: it was an entertaining read.

    My wife and I are not fans of parades, and were actually glad the MSEP was being replaced (sorry fans, but we found the music annoying and repetitive, and the floats did nothing to impress us). We had adored the Lion King parade (probably the only parade anywhere we really liked), and it used the format of short stops where the performers would put on small shows. When we heard about Light Magic and that it would also stop for its performances we thought we would enjoy it too, but it was one of the worst things we ever experienced at Disneyland. I kind of liked the ugly pixie masks, but then I also think Cthulhu looks cute.

  • OrangeFlash

    You probably don’t realize it, but your story also explains why the space program is so expensive!

  • MickeysImagination

    Bob, Wonderful article.

    Committee’s (sales, marketing and MBA’s) do not mix well with the designers and engineers. When someone comes to me and says, “What is the possibility of doing this (insert item here)?” means ‘we sold this for x dollars, now make it happen in 2 weeks.’ The basic concept for Light Tragic was not bad, just too many nonessential people saying, “What is the possibility of doing this…?”


  • TodAZ1

    The thing I liked the most about Light Magic? The part at the end when they played the MSEP music. THAT gave me goose bumps!

    But that’s not a good thing for a parade to do. Make a guest yearn for your predecessor.

  • gurgi

    I wasn’t there for the AP preview, but I certainly was there during the whole summer of ’97 and saw Light Magic many times.

    On one hand, I kind of liked it. I had already separated it from MSEP because I knew whatever it was, it was not going to be like what came before. I liked the energy of the performers, and often, they would see me and my group and wave and interact with us.

    On the other hand, I could tell it had some serious issues. I’m surprised that they decided to make each rolling stage identical. It would have helped to make each one different, so it seemed more like a parade. Also, it would have been nice to actually treat it like a parade with a giant show stop. People always got so confused by these dark (quickly moving) floats. They expected to see a parade, but didn’t know that they were just going from A to B. Then, the screens, where only the ones near them could see the film…anybody in between stages was out of luck.

    The Riverdance thing was also already dated by 1997, so Disney (as usual) was behind in current trends. I thought the music was good, and energetic, but I could see how it had a short shelf life. And those pixies, boy were they creepy! I could see little kids shrinking in terror as they came out to pry them from the crowd. I know if I was little, I wouldn’t want to get near them…it would be like going off hand-in-hand with Chuckie.

    The fiber-optics were really cool, and I’m sad that they stopped using the ones embedded in the Main Street shop facades after this. I think they could really still do something spectacular with them, like incorporate them into the Christmas tree lighting show, or something else.

    The one thing I find ironic looking back on it, is that it really was ahead of it’s time in theme, because the Disney Fairies franchise owes a lot to it’s design, theme, and music. If they ever planned to have Light Magic 2.0, they could just make it all about the Disney Fairies, and it would fit the theme.

  • tinkerbell54

    I know I am in the minority, but I LOVED Light Magic, it is the only parade I made sure I saw every performance of while we were there two weeks on vacation! I had never done that with another parade before then or since then…lolol

  • train man

    although the show itself left little to be desired I do like the soundtrack has a neat sound to it.

  • DG2

    Yikes !! As they say here on Long Island , this was “ongaposh” ! Cool story Bob. Thx


    I remember this show-or call it what it REALLY was-a waste of time I was so disappointed when I saw it I remember the day after I saw it, standing in line to get into DLR a couple of men talking about it & how disappointed they were Let’s face it, after March of 1995 when they opened Indy DLR just made mistake after mistake Light Magic in 97 & all the 98 Tomorrowland remakes that just did NOT work NOT a highpoint in Disneyland history was it? NO