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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 2

Jim Hill

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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 2

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To hear the Disneyland Entertainment staff tell the story, it was all Tinker Bell's fault.

You see, ever since Peter Pan's pal made her small screen debut on the very first broadcast of the "Disneyland" TV show, people have been associating this spritely little sprite with the Anaheim theme park. Which is all well and good. Until people who visited Disneyland actually began asking "Where can I go to see Tinker Bell?"

I know, I know. That sounds like a very strange question. But let's remember that this is Disneyland that we're talking about here, folks. A place where you can ride a flying elephant and/or have your picture taken with a 5-foot-tall mouse. So - under those specific set of circumstances - people asking about where they can get a glimpse of a 6-inch-tall pixie doesn't actually seem all that strange at all.

Anyway ... According to the guest relations staff at Disneyland's Town Hall, almost from the moment that the park first opened back in July of 1955, people began asking for Miss Bell. And why was this? Well, evidently the opening of the "Disneyland" TV gave guests the impression that Tinker Bell actually lived at the park. So they evidently came through the gate, expecting to see Tink spending her day flitting around Fantasyland ... and - when this actually didn't happen - these people were supposedly pretty sore.

Ever intent on keeping his guests happy, Walt Disney actively sought a way to put a real live Tinker Bell on display inside his theme park. For a while in the late 1950s, he actually recruited a female cast member to walk around the park dressed as a pixie. This woman would then pose for pictures with the guests and/or sign autographs. But kids discovered that this faux fairy wasn't able to use her wings to fly, they knew that she wasn't the real Tinker Bell.

It would take Walt another couple of years to finally come up with at least a partial solution to Disneyland's Tinker Bell problem. But - once work was completed on the Matterhorn in 1959 - he went out and hired 70-year-old aerialist Tiny Kline to come play Tinker Bell at his park. Starting in the summer of 1961, Tiny would strap on a pair of wings - as well as a safety harness - and leap off the 143-foot peak. She'd then slid down a cable over Sleeping Beauty Castle, which would signal the start of the park's nightly fireworks display.

Okay. So recruiting Kline did finally solved Disneyland's "Where can I go to see Tinker Bell" problem. Sort of. By that I mean, guests did get to glimpse Peter Pan's pal in person. But only on nights when fireworks were scheduled. If a fairy fan made their way to the park on the wrong day or during the wrong time of year, there'd be no Tink sighting. Which usually resulted in a guest dropping by City Hall to lodge an angry complaint. Something along the lines of "My child didn't get to see Tinker Bell during her visit to your theme park today. So now he/she will now be scarred for life!"

Sure, it wasn't a perfect solution. But it was better than nothing. So things stayed as they were ... Til the early 1980s, that is. That's when the Imagineers got wind of this unusual pile of guest complaint letters over at Disneyland City Hall. People who said that that their day at the theme park had actually been ruined because they hadn't seen Tinker Bell. So - being the creative bunch of guys that they were - the wizards of WDI wondered: "Is there something that we can do about this? Can we come up with an affordable way to have Tinker Bell fly around the park every day?"

The solution that Imagineer Tony Baxter and his creative team cooked up to solve this guest complaint problem was - to put it mildly - unique. These guys took the hard clear plastic shell that Imagineering had created for the Alice AA figure in Disneyland's new "Alice in Wonderland" dark ride. The Imagineers then filled its body cavity with battery operated twinkle lights. After they did this, Tony's team took a miniature radio controlled helicopter and attached it onto the back of the tiny Alice figure.

The end result was a remote control Tinker Bell figure that was actually capable of flight. Once they got the hang of maneuvering the miniature helicopter via its hand-held control unit, the Imagineers found that they could send the Alice figure soaring around the turrets of Sleeping Beauty's Castle or skimming across the surface of the moats. And not for just a few seconds, but for minutes at a time.

Sure, the prototype was crude looking. And the engines of the miniature helicopter were unspeakably loud. But none of that seemed to matter once it was dark and the figure's interior twinkle lights had been turned on. According to those who actually got to view the after-hours flight tests, the end result supposedly looked absolutely magical. From a distance, it honestly did appear as if Tinker Bell herself - a creature made out of pixie dust & light - was flitting around Fantasyland.

Had Walt Disney Productions' management actually opted to go forward with a finished version of the flying Tinker Bell prototype, this figure would have solved a number of Disneyland's problems. Now Peter Pan's pal could have made appearances in the park every single night. Every hour on the hour after dusk, if Disneyland management had deemed it necessary.

So why didn't the Mouse decide to go forward with this extremely cool sounding, miniature flying Tinker Bell figure? To put in bluntly, the corporation's lawyers just hated this idea. During the initial in-house pitch for the Tinker Bell project, the company's attorneys kept interrupting the presentation & saying things like "What if you lose control of the figure? What if it accidentally flies into a crowd and injures a child? Can you imagine the headlines? 'Mechanical Tinker Bell maims tot at Disneyland.' "

Given that it quickly became obvious that Disney's legal department would never sign off on this version of the flying Tinker Bell figure, the Imagineers reluctantly shelved the project. The crude prototype is still probably hidden away somewhere in a warehouse in Glendale, deep inside the bowels of WDI. Waiting for that long-dreamed-of day when lawyers stop spoiling all of our fun.

Anywho ... Even though Disneyland's Tinker Bell project never officially made it off the ground, stories about the figure that actually flew around the castle became legend among Disneyland staffers. In fact, it was at a meeting for Disneyland's Entertainment Office - when the staff was reportedly discussing what they could do to try & top the "Main Street Electrical Parade" - when someone supposedly brought up the infamous Tinker Bell flying figure story again.

This was the moment when Disneyland's MSEP replacement project took a decidedly fateful turn. For the DL Entertainment staff knew that guests were still complaining about not being able to see Tinker Bell fly every time that they visited the park. So what if - instead of having Ms. Bell leap off the Matterhorn and fly out Sleeping Beauty's Castle only on summer nights - they could create a newer, safer version of WDI's old flying Tinker Bell figure? Something that they could fly down the full length of the parade route, just a few feet above the guests' heads?

Nah. The company's lawyers would never go for something like that. That idea just didn't seem practical ... Unless - of course - you shortened the parade route. Restricted the area that the Tinker Bell figure actually had to fly over. Then maybe - just maybe - Disney's attorneys would sign off on the project.

And - based on that slim little nothing of an idea, folks - the show that was initially known at "Tinker Bell's Light Magic" was officially underway.

Mind you, the recycling of WDI's old flying Tinker Bell figure idea wasn't the only concept that Disneyland's Entertainment Office "borrowed" in their attempt to come up with a show that could top the park's much loved "Main Street Electrical Parade." Make that 20 plus year-old extravaganza - with its half-a-million Christmas lights - seem like just a dim memory.

But how do you top 41 different floats that stretch out over a quarter mile long parade route? More importantly, how do you top a theme song that seems to have burned its way in the cerebral cortex of every single theme park visitor that's ever seen the parade since MSEP made its Disneyland debut back in June of 1972?

According to Disneyland's Entertainment staff, the solution was simple: You just keep "borrowing" ideas. Stealing key concepts and/or spectacular effects from other previously successful Disney theme park projects. Then you blend all of that altogether and come up with something that's original yet familiar.

Soooo ... MSEP proved that people like parades at night that have lots of bright lights & catchy music. So "Tinker Bell's Light Magic" would have to have lots of stuff like that.

But then Disneyland's 35th anniversary parade (AKA the "Party Gras") proved that theme park visitors also love it when parades suddenly come to a stop and the guests get the chance to interact with the characters while confetti rains down on them. So Disneyland's Entertainment staff would have to make sure that "Tinker Bell's Light Magic" would have lots of those elements as well.

And let's not forget the most successful new show to debut at Disneyland in decades: "Fantasmic!" This night-time waterfront spectacular proved beyond a shadow of a doubt (At least to DL's Entertainment staff's way of thinking) that people just love watching movies once they're inside a theme park. Particularly if these movies magically appear on screens that suddenly pop into view. So that key component of "Fantasmic!"'s success would also have to play a prominent role in the "Tinker Bell's Light Magic" show.

You see what the problem here is, folks? One good idea (a tiny flying Tinker Bell figure zooming by, a few feet above guests' heads) got folded into another good idea (A night-time parade that features colorful twinkling lights & catching music) and another good idea (A parade that stops and features lots of guest interaction plus clouds of confetti) and another good idea (movies that appear out of nowhere on magical screens). The end result was NOT something original yet familiar, but - rather - a confusing mish-mash. Disneyland's Entertainment staff actually did have a cute concept for a new night-time show for the park when they initially started work on this project. But that promising idea got buried under a ton of extraneous, unnecessary stuff.

Mind you, these talented people in DL Entertainment Office didn't deliberately go out of their way to try & ruin "Light Magic." But - in their sincere effort to try & come up with something that would top Disneyland's much beloved "Main Street Electrical Parade" - they accidentally "plussed" LM's original cute core concept right out of existence.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner didn't help matters either. Back in March of 1996, Michael reportedly caught "Riverdance" during its initial American engagement at NYC's Radio City Music Hall. Eisner was said to be wowed by the audience's enthusiastic response to the Irish folk dance extravaganza.

Weeks later - while attending a "Light Magic" production meeting - Eisner allegedly looked at the conceptual art of Tinker Bell and her pixie pals dancing on Main Street U.S.A. and said "Fairies are Irish, right? Maybe you guys should make this show like 'Riverdance.' Throw in some step dancing and tin whistles and stuff."

Again, Eisner wasn't out to ruin "Tinker Bell's Light Magic." He was just making an innocent suggestion. Something that he honestly hoped would improve the show. The only problem was that - with each new production meeting for the MSEP replacement - this new Disneyland show kept getting further and further away from the simple idea that originally sparked the project. The concept of thrilling Disneyland guests by having a real tiny Tinker Bell fly by - just a few feet over their heads - was getting lost in a sea of step dancing, suddenly appearing movie screens and confetti-like pixie dust.

Mind you, it wasn't just Disneyland's creative staff that was having problems with "Light Magic." Soon the tech side of the house would find itself all snafued by the park's new "streetacular."

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