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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 5

Jim Hill

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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 5

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Just a quick note before we get started here today. I want to take a moment to thank all of you nice people who've sent me notes over the past 10 days, saying me how much you've been enjoying my "Light Magic" series.

In particular, I want to acknowledge an e-mail that I just received from Vicki T. of Fort Collins, CO who wrote:

Dear Jim:

Kudos to you for your continuing series of "Light Magic" articles over at DCACentral.com. These are the types of stories that I think you do best, Jim. The long-form pieces where you methodically walk your readers through how something at the Walt Disney Company actually came into being.

I can't wait to read Part Five of your "Light Magic" series because frankly, I can't understand how Disney didn't know that this show was going to be a disaster. Your articles clearly show how "Light Magic" was in trouble almost from the start. And yet these talented people, all of these veterans from other successful Disneyland shows, still seemed to have missed or ignored the warning signs.

If "Light Magic" really was in such rough shape during its construction and rehearsal phase, Jim, then why didn't Disney Entertainment just postpone its premiere?

Excellent question, Vicki. And the answer is, Disneyland's Entertainment staff DID try to get the "Light Magic" premiere postponed. In late April, they actually went to Disneyland management and begged them for the extra time that DL's Entertainment staff would needed to get the "streetacular" in shape. Which staffers figured would only take an additional three or four weeks.

Unfortunately, Disneyland's management refused Entertainment's request. Why? Because three other departments at the Disneyland Resort: Marketing, Merchandise and Special Events, insisted that "Light Magic" had to open on time and on schedule.

Why did Disneyland's Marketing. Merchandise and Special Events offices do this? Did you ever hear the expression "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions?"

That is what honestly happened with "Light Magic," folks. Three divisions of the Disneyland resort got behind the "streetacular" in such a big way that their futures were literally riding on the "streetacular." They had already invested so much time and money in "Light Magic" that they just couldn't afford to have that show postponed .

Take. for example, Disneyland's Marketing division. This department was just coming off a highly successful year. Michael Eisner himself credited DL marketing & its brilliant "See It before It Glows Away" campaign for making the Summer of 1996 one of the most successful seasons the Anaheim theme park had ever seen. Now Eisner was expecting Disneyland's crack marketing staff to work the same sort of magic in the Summer of 1997 during the "Light Magic" inaugural season.

Well, it's one thing to try & get people excited about a show that they've seen before. (And there's no denying that Disneyland's Marketing staff did a masterful job of making people feel nostalgic about MSEP. Which is why they turned out in record numbers to catch the "Main Street Electrical Parade" during its alleged "Farewell Season.") But it's quite another to try & get people enthusiastic about something they've never seen before. Particularly a show like "Light Magic" that's a real departure from other Disneyland theme park shows.

So, to get the word out, Disneyland's Marketing office had to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars months ahead of time on splashy print ads for all of the magazines. They also had to hire pricey special effects houses to produce their TV commercials (Which got kind of tricky. Particularly since none of the "rolling stages" were camera ready when the "Light Magic" TV commercial had to be filmed. So that float that you glimpsed rolling down Main Street U.S.A. during the LM TV ad campaign? That was actually just a model of the float, no more a foot high. One that had been used by Disneyland Entertainment staffers when they were pitching "Light Magic" to upper management). Not to mention all the money the Mouse had to pour into recording sessions for those "Light Magic" radio commercials that blanketed the airwaves that summer.

So Disneyland Marketing obviously had a lot of dough tied up in "Light Magic" long before the show actually debuted. Which is why these guys were really reluctant to listen when DL's Entertainment division began whispering that their "streetacular" might not meet its May 13th premiere date.

Mind you, one of the main reasons that Disneyland's marketing staff disregarded DL Entertainment's advance warnings about "Light Magic" was because, well, Disneyland Entertainment had a history of crying "Wolf." DL's PR people had grown used to hearing horror stories about Disney theme park shows that were in terrible trouble just prior to their premieres.

Take, for example, "Fantasmic!" Few people now recall how close this special effects extravaganza came to crashing and burning. Disneyland's Entertainment staff didn't even find out if the "Fantasmic!" cutting edge water screen technology would work in a theme park setting until a scant 10 weeks before the show was originally slated to open. Never mind all of the other technical bugaboos that forced the Mouse to push back the show's official debut by nearly a month.

And let's not forget the park's "Lion King Celebration" parade in 1994. This show opened at the park right after Mickey not-so-wisely had decided to shut down Disneyland's on-site parade fabrication facility. Which meant that Disney had to hire outside vendors to build the floats for this show. Of course, thinking that he had come up with a clever way to keep costs down, Mickey didn't hire a single design company to build all five units. But rather - they contracted five different design companies to each make a single "Lion King" themed parade float. Can you say "royal screw-up?"

So, as you can see, Disneyland's Marketing staff, by this point, had grown used to hearing DL's Entertainment staffers complain about the horrible shape their latest show was in. Which is why they paid little heed to all the awful rumors that had begun swirling around "Light Magic."

Mind you, DL's Marketing staff wasn't the only division at the Disneyland Resort that was counting on "Light Magic" to come through in the Summer of 1997. DL's merchandising staff was also betting heavily on the "streetacular." After all, Disneyland's shops had moved a mountain of "Main Street Electric Parade" merchandise during that show's farewell celebration back in 1996. The park even managed to sell out on some of the more expensive, limited edition commemorative MSEP items. So was it too much to hope for that lightning might strike twice with "Light Magic"?

Disneyland's Merchandise staff didn't think so. Which is why they literally ordered tons of "Light Magic" related merchandise. These items included $300 "Light Magic" letterman jackets (with real working fiber optics that lit up the "streetacular" logo on the back), $70 commemorative watches, collectible coins. Along with the usual assortment of T-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons and mugs. All purchased in record quantities because Disneyland's Merchandising staff was certain that the inaugural season of "Light Magic" would at least be as popular as the final season of the park's "Main Street Electrical Parade."

Another Disneyland division that was counting on "Light Magic" being hugely popular was the Resort's Special Event office. These folks were so certain that DL's new "streetacular" was going to be a hit that they decided to stage a special premiere event just for Disneyland's annual passholders.

This hard ticket event (Translation: Annual passholders would only be allowed to attend the "Light Magic" exclusive premiere party after they had paid $25 per person for tickets to attend the event) would be held on May 13th. a full 10 days ahead of LM's official Disneyland debut. The party would be held after hours, long after the theme park had officially closed for the day.

Of course, to make the annual passholder's "Light Magic" premiere party experience that much memorable, Disneyland's Special Events Office decided to offer some exclusive merchandise to party-goers. Items that you could only get your hands on if you attended the May 13th event.

Disneyland's merchandise office was happy to get on board with this idea. They contacted noted Disney artist Charles Boyer and hired him to create a "Light Magic" lithograph. They then arranged for Charles to be the park on May 13th, where he'd sign any LM lithos that were purchased during the premiere party.

The New Century Timepieces shop at Disneyland also got in on the act. They created another "Light Magic" premiere party exclusive: a limited-edition watch that could only be purchased by people who attended the annual passholders event.

All this, plus mugs, T-shirts, buttons. All emblazoned with the May 13th party date.

So now can you understand why Disneyland's Marketing, Merchandise and Special Events went ballistic when they learned that DL's Entertainment Office really did wanted to push the "Light Magic" official debut back from May 23rd until at least the middle of June? The PR flacks cried "You can't push back the opening date. We've got ads placed in national publications that say that this show opens in May. If you change the date, that will totally screw up our "Light Magic" ad campaign."

Then the Special Events Office chimed in: "You can't push back the "Light Magic" opening date. If you do that, we'll have to cancel the annual passholder's premiere party. And you know how those weenies are. They'll *** and moan like the world's coming to an end. Never mind about all the ticket money that we'll have to refund."

But it was Disneyland's merchandise office that complained loudest and longest. They said: "You can't postpone the premiere of "Light Magic." You just can't. Why? Because we've a warehouse full of stuff that's stamped "May 13, 1997." If you pull the plug on this party, we'll going to have to eat all of this merchandise."

Which is why Disneyland management ultimately told DL's Entertainment staff that "Light Magic" would have to go forward as scheduled. Never mind that only three out of the show's four "rolling stages" would be ready to roll by the night of the May 13th premiere party. Or that 15% of the show's crucial special effects had yet to be installed in floats. Or that the "streetacular" cast would only have time for a single dress rehearsal: on the night before the premier party, May 12th, before they'd have to perform before that most finicky of customers: Disneyland's annual passholders.

All because Disneyland's Marketing department couldn't bring itself to eat the cost of a few measly magazine ads. All because DL's Special Events office didn't want to refund any of the money that it had already taken in from annual passholders. All because the resort's merchandise staff didn't want to write off the cost of a few thousand dated T-shirts and mugs, a $40 million theme park show debuted before it was ready, and promptly hit the rocks.

All because some people with good intentions got behind "Light Magic," then put their own agendas ahead of those of Disneyland's Entertainment staff. The folks who were actually trying to save the show.

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