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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 7

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Remembering "Light Magic" -- Part 7

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So when did the bad buzz on "Light Magic" really begin to spread?

Obviously, Disneyland's technical staff - the people who'd been putting in 18-hour days for weeks now, trying to get those "rolling stages" ready for their May 13th debut - must have told their family members that "Light Magic" was an extremely troubled show. And surely the Cast Members who were working in the park that spring must have heard some of the rumors swirling around the "streetacular" and passed them along to their pals.

So the truth about LM was - to borrow a phrase from the "X Files" - "was (already) out there." But who was the one that really cranked up the volume? Made Disneyana fans everywhere - as well as the mainstream media - aware that "Light Magic" didn't exactly trip the light fantastic? That honor (if you want to call it that) would probably have to go to the master of MousePlanet (and my old boss), Al Lutz.

Of course, back then, Al didn't have a planet to call his own. He was just a successful executive with a recording company that spent a lot of his free time noting on the Net. Lutz's specialty was writing about the Walt Disney Company, with a particular emphasis on Disneyland.

And - since the A.D.D. (I.E. Alt. Disney. Disneyland, a popular Disneyana news group on the web) crowd seemed to get such a big kick out of his musing on the Mouse - Al decided to start up his very own web page. Though the site had a very official sounding name - The Disneyland Information Guide. Better known as the D.I.G. - it was actually just an unauthorized internet-based guide to the Anaheim theme park. A fun place to go if you wanted to read the latest behind-the-scenes dish on "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Anywho ... For months now, Al had been closely following the development of "Light Magic." Back in November of 1996, he posted (in A.D.D., mind you) the first really detailed report on what the proposed show elements for DL's mysterious "streetacular" were really going to be. Based on his writings at the time, Lutz seemed to really be looking forward to seeing "Light Magic" when it premiered at the park in the Spring of 1997.

Which is why Al probably agreed to join a bunch of his A.D.D. cronies at "Light Magic"'s Annual Passholder Premiere Party. I mean, it sounds like a pretty fun way to spend an evening, doesn't it? Hang out with your friends at Disneyland. Get to see a presentation by a noted Imagineer (Tony Baxter used the "Light Magic" AP event as an opportunity to unveil WDI's plans for DL's New Tomorrowland) as well as attend LM's world premiere.

Well, things obviously didn't go according to plan. Rather than the highly enjoyable evening that Al had originally envisioned, Lutz's "Light Magic" experience was ... well, to quote from the lengthy report that he posted on D.I.G. later that week:

"... As a show and (a) concept, it is a complete and total failure. Folks, until last night I have never heard an audience start to boo a show at the park before - ever."

In his D.I.G. report, Al lovingly detailed the entire "Light Magic" debacle. The loop of LM intro music that wouldn't stop playing. The audience members who booed and/or cried "Bring back the Electrical Parade!" The long line of angry annual passholders outside of City Hall, eager to register complaints about the underwhelming show and/or get their money back.

It made for some awfully juicy reading. Which probably explains why this D.I.G. report flew so quickly around the Web.

Mind you, Al wasn't the only person on the Web who was saying awfully strong things about "Light Magic." For example, Internet user Stephen Frye - in his posting - called the "streetacular" "... the single most disappointing thing I have ever experienced at Disneyland."

But - because he was an entertainment industry vet - Lutz knew the value of promotion. Which is why he followed up his initial D.I.G. "Light Magic" report with a letter to the Los Angeles Times. Why the Times? Al was writing in response to a puff promo piece on the show, "Disneyland in a New Light," that Rick VanderKnyff had written for the paper's "Calendar" section.

Lutz first took the article's author to task for heaping lavish praise on "Light Magic," a show that he'd never actually seen. (While working on the story, VanderKnyff was given considerable backstage access at Disneyland. He got to interview LM's creative team as well as talk with DL technicians as they finished up the floats. But Rick never got to see a complete performance of the "streetacular." Just the bits and pieces of the show that the LM cast was able to do in late April / early May.) Al then went on to say:

"A long Disneyland tradition of quality showmanship ended with a show so dependent on effects (none of which worked) that it came across lacking precisely those qualities of heart and storytelling Disney has been famous for."

The Times' editors closed out Al's letter by adding a line that identified him as the webmaster of D.I.G. Even going so far as to include his then-current web address: http://members.aol.com/alweho.

This letter - as well as Al's initial "Light Magic" report - got Lutz lots of attention. Particularly from the mainstream media, who were delighted to discover someone who was oh-so-willing to dish about the Walt Disney Company's latest debacle.

Mind you, not every AP'er who wrote on the Web about their "Light Magic" Premiere Party experience had bad things to say. Some of these folks had actually liked the show. Or - at least - liked individual elements of the show. For example, several noters went out of their way to praise the "streetacular"'s pixies for incorporating a sign language version of the "Dream Our Dreams" theme song into their performance.

But most of the annual passholders who took the time to vent their feelings about "Light Magic" on the Net seemed to think the show was - at best - a mixed bag. Some felt that LM's sheer size and scope made it difficult to win guests over. As one rather eloquent but sadly anonymous poster put it:

"This would be a much better Super Bowl Spectacular Half-time show. One where you could see the entire presentation at one time. As it is, you only get to see one float during the performance (out of 3 or 4) and only one set of characters. If you sit in the wrong spot, you'll miss your favorite character. And from the curb, you're so close to the float that it seems like you're in the very front row of a live theater. Interesting for a moment, but you definitely lose perspective and it tends to feel like you're missing something down the street. To me, it just seemed like too much to fit into Main Street."

The irony here is that - as they were developing the "streetacular" - Disneyland's Entertainment staff always thought that one of "Light Magic"'s best selling points was its size. This was the biggest show - cast-wise - that had ever been done on a daily basis inside a Disney theme park. I mean, at one point in the show, there are nearly 100 people out on stage - 64 pixies and 30 classic Disney characters. All of them out in the street, dancing up a storm.

And - as to the complaint that "Light Magic"'s rolling stages all looked alike ... that was another deliberate choice on DL's Entertainment's part. The inspiration for the identical units actually came from Disneyland's highly successful "Main Street Hop." When four enormous juke boxes were rolled out onto Main Street U.S.A. and used as the staging areas for a musical street show build around the rock 'n' roll hits from the early 1950s.

Unfortunately, the cast and crew of "Light Magic" didn't have the time to get on the Web and defend their show from all these caustic comments. Why? Because all of the float builders, technicians and performers were too busy pulling all-nighters, getting their "streetacular" ready for its May 23rd premiere.

To be honest, the LM team didn't even have time to really reflect on the disastrous reception the show had received during the annual passholder event. Why for? Because the very next night - May 14th - "Light Magic" was scheduled to hold its Disneyland cast member premiere. Over 12,000 people (cast members and their guests) were due in the park that night to view the "streetacular."

Of course, this time around, Disneyland's Entertainment didn't mince word when it came to revealing what rough shape the show was actually in. As DL cast members entered the park that night, they were warned that what they were about to see wasn't a performance of "Light Magic" in the traditional sense. But - rather - a "developmental rehearsal." DL's Entertainment staff tried to keep guests' expectations pretty low that evening, constantly reminding those assembled that this was only the second time that LM had been performed with all of its available elements. Cast Members were also told that they should expect the show to continue to change right up until "Light Magic"'s public premiere on May 23rd.

Those who were there in the park that night say that "Light Magic" had more than its share of glitches. Still, the LM cast performed with lots of energy. Which almost compensated for the somewhat dim fiber-optics on the floats. Almost.

Disneyland's technicians spent the next few days trying to soup up the show's special effects. Make "Light Magic"'s fiber-optics dazzling, rather than a disappointment.

Unfortunately, thanks to Al's unfavorable "Light Magic" report over on the D.I.G., word was quickly starting to spread about how underwhelmed Disneyland's annual passholders had been with the theme park's new "streetacular."

The Orange County Register actually began interviewing AP'ers about the event on May 14th & 15th. This resulted in the paper's May 17th headline story, "Disneyland's 'Light Magic' Fizzles." In the article, annual passholder Angy Jacobus was quoted as saying " there is no light and there is no magic to this production." Angy - who asked for a refund following the disappointing premiere - felt that the show was amateurish, "something that any high school could have put on if they had access to Disney copyright material."

Mind you, not every AP'er quoted in the article had such awful things to say about the show. For example, Richard Massaro initially praised the dancing that was done by the show's performers. But then Richard went on to say that "a lot of the choreography was going on at ground level." Which meant that a lot of the show was basically invisible to those folks standing behind the first row.

It hurt the "Light Magic" cast and crew to see their officially-yet-to-be-opened show being openly attacked in the press and/or being damned with faint praise. But - to be honest - they didn't really have the time to dwell on the matter ... These folks had to continue rehearsing and refining their "streetacular." For now it was less than a week 'til "Light Magic"'s official public premiere.

The evening of May 19th saw the first of three Vons Private Party "Light Magic" Preview Nights at the park. These "Preview Nights" were a special "Light Magic" promotion that Disneyland had cooked up with Vons, the leading supermarket chain in Southern California. Vons officially started its in-store promotion of DL's "streetacular" on Easter Sunday 1997 and kept the hype coming right through April 30th.

5000 shoppers who were lucky enough to win the supermarket chain's "Light Magic" sweepstakes each received a packet for four tickets good for admission to one of Vons' three "Light Magic" Preview Nights. (Here's an intriguing high tech touch to the tale. At least for back in 1997: Vons Shoppers who used their VonsClub Card while shopping at the supermarket chain during the "Light Magic" promotional period were automatically entered in the contest. No nasty entry blanks to fill out. Just swipe ... and then - maybe - you win! )

Anywho ... Bob Witter, Director of Promotions for the Disneyland Resort, cobbled together this deal with Vons. At the time, Bob said: "This is one of the largest retail promotions in the history of Disneyland, and it fulfills our strategy of a targeted and extensive awareness and excitement-building for 'Light Magic.'"

Which is why Bob went ballistic when DL's Entertainment staff approached him in mid-May and asked if it would be okay to postpone the Vons Private Party "Light Magic" Preview Nights for a while. So that they'd have the opportunity to try and fix DL's "streetacular" in private. Out of the spotlight, so to speak.

Wittier - of course - said "No." Not wanting to screw up the Mouse's relationship with the supermarket chain (as well as ruin any chance of doing additional in-store promotions for the theme park further down the line), Bob insisted that the Vons Private Parties go on as scheduled.

The first two Vons Preview Nights seemed to go okay. But where this got interesting was that some guests who had attended the annual passholders "Light Magic" Premiere Party also scored passes to the Vons events. And - based on the notes that they began putting up on the Web - the "streetacular" was much improved. One anonymous poster - who said that he'd attended both the Annual Passholders "Light Magic" Premiere Party as well as a Von Private Party "Light Magic" Preview Night - declared that "there was clearly a world of difference between the two" versions of the show and that LM had obviously been significantly overhauled and reworked since its May 13th premiere party performance.

Even more surprising, some guests who were seeing "Light Magic" for the very first time chimed in, saying that they had really enjoyed the show. Internet user James Ferguson - even though he was posting on the "Light Magic Bites" page - said that he'd attended the May 19th performance of LM and that "it was wonderful and it went beyond my expectations."

May 21st was the third and final night of Vons' "Light Magic" Private Party promotion. But it was also the night that the media finally gotten in the park to get a peek at the show. The "Light Magic" production team had gone all out in their attempts to spruce up the show this evening. They had even added a new pyrotechnic display to the show - with fireworks that shot off the rooftops of Main Street as well as the Castle.

This was also the evening when Disneyland's Entertainment staff decided to finally fold the infamous Tinker Bell fly-over effect in the "streetacular." (You remember? The pyro sliding down a guide wire bit?) This worked fine for the first show. But - during the second round of "Light Magic" performances that night - Tinker Bell suddenly caught fire in mid-flight, and then crashed to the street. To avoid endangering the guests, Peter Pan's pal had to be quickly extinguished. This meant that cast members had to stomp the pseudo-sprite out, right there in the street, right in front of some pretty wide-eyed little kids.

Mind you, on this very same day, Paul Pressler - while speaking with the press - had called "Light Magic" "...a work in progress." He also admitted that the Annual Passholder premiere party had actually been a "dress rehearsal" which had been marred by technical "glitches." Disneyland spokesperson Tom Brocato goes on to say that the streetacular - even at this late date - still has a few kinks that need to be ironed out.

To give Disneyland's president some credit: During this round of interviews, Pressler tried to put the best possible face on the "Light Magic" situation. He reminded reporters that - back in 1972 when the much loved "Main Street Electrical Parade" was getting started at DL, that show had its problems too. "There were nights when they couldn't get all of the lights on the floats to stay lit the full length of the parade route."

Okay, a darkened parade float is admittedly a problem. But - then again - so were characters that inadvertantly frighten small children. This is one enormous flaw that the Disneyland Entertainment staff found in their "streetacular" during "Light Magic"'s Vons Club previews.

You see, according to Micheal Maines, LM's Creative Director, DL's "streetacular" was deliberately created to "break down the performance walls and make our Guests active participants" in the show. The only problem was - as the pixies approached the audience along the performance corridor and tried to recruit children to come learn how to throw pixie dust - the kids refused to go.

Why for? Because the elaborate half-masks that the LM performers wore (which gave cast members chubby cheeks, turned up noses as well as pointy ears to simulate an elvish appearance) looked pretty sinister when viewed up close. Which caused some kids to shy away from the characters.

Still, this was the sort of problem that Disneyland's Entertainment staff hoped that they'd be able to fix further on down the line. They were just happy that their boss seemed be much happier with the shape that the "streetacular" was now in. When speaking with reporters on LM's press preview night, Paul said "Tonight, we're thrilled" because there had been no visible "glitches."

Give or take a crashing Tinker Bell or two.

Anyway ... as the big day approached, Disneyland Entertainment staff suddenly realized that it had to do something to help Disneyland's cast members - the ones who aren't directly involved with "Light Magic," that is - get ready for the arrival of the show. DL Entertainment staffers knew that these folks in the front lines were the one who were actually going to get hammered with difficult questions from Guests once their "streetacular" is up and running. Which is why they decided to create a LM fact sheet that was distributed to every Disneyland Resort cast members. Just so they'd have all the right answers in hand. Just in case someone started asking awkward questions.

Take - for example - this sample Q & A from the LM fact sheet:


The Main Street Electrical Parade was a treasured part of our Disneyland history. However, we always strive to move forward and present our guests with exciting new shows and attractions that showcase the latest in state-of-the-art entertainment technology.

It was hoped that - once they were armed with answers like these - Disneyland cast members could deflect awkward questions from theme park guests. Particularly those folks who found "Light Magic" lacking. Who wondered why the Mouse had to pull the plug on the "Main Street Electrical Parade" in the first place.

Of course, Disneyland's Entertainment staff had other concerns about the park's cast members and "Light Magic." Particularly those employees who had been reading what was written about the "streetacular" on the Internet and/or who'd heard all the gossip that had been passed around the park during LM's difficult rehearsal period.

With the hope that this might rally the troops, make Disneyland cast members finally feel good about "Light Magic," DL's Entertainment staff arranged for the following story to appear in the May 23rd issue of the "Disneyland Line" (I.E. The theme park's official weekly employee newsletter):

Keeping the Faith (When Others May Doubt Us)

Q: How do we respond to the "tough" questions and remarks about new projects?

A: "There's really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward - opening up new doors and doing new things ... We're always exploring and experimenting ..."

Those words were spoken by Walt Disney more than 40 years ago. Although we can't surmise what Walt would might think today, we can all be proud that he started Disneyland on a dream and with the faith that he could create something that the public would enjoy. He developed Disneyland with the commitment to shaping and molding new ideas into perfection and the courage to disregard those who doubted him. We would be wise today to remember the very principles upon which Walt founded Disneyland.

No doubt many of us have heard the stories about July 17, 1955. No water fountains ... melting pavement ... wet paint. In an interview following the opening of Disneyland, Walt said "Almost everyone warned us that Disneyland would be a Hollywood spectacular - a spectacular failure. A lot of people don't realize that we have more very serious problems here, keepin' this thing going and getting it started. I remember when we opened, if anybody recalls, we didn't have enough money to finish the landscaping ..."

We needn't look any further than our own rich Disneyland heritage to realize that for 42 years we have been an organization that built its success on opening new doors in the world of Theme Park entertainment - despite naysayers. We are firmly planted in the belief that to be the best, to stay ahead of the rest of the pack, we have to push the envelope, we have to be the dreamers, the inventors, and the experimenters ... not the followers.

"We accept the challenge - not just in Entertainment, but in everything we do at Disneyland - to invent and create," said Mike Davis, Vice President of Entertainment. "Inventing new technology is risky in the beginning, but we take those calculated risks because you've got to take a chance if you want to create something spectacular."

We all realize that the public has very high expectations of the Disney product. We too have an enormous pride and high standards for the product we present to our Guests. So when we create and refine new products is when our pride and support is most critical. Now is one of those times.

While we shape, mold and refine Light Magic, remind yourself that at Disneyland we create cutting edge technology that others duplicate. For us, the process of refinement so that we achieve Disney perfection is essentially Standard Operating Procedure. "With new endeavors always comes risk and the process of refinement along the way - and those are the projects that become our stunning successes," said Mike. "That will be true of Light Magic, too."

Disneyland's Entertainment staff also arranged for the following new age-y sentiments to appear in that week's issue of "Disneyland Line":

"Negativity tends to feed off of itself"


"Each of us must decide how we are going to react to change and growth. We can be involved in bringing about change, or we can let it be imposed upon us."

Admittedly, these were stirring words and/or soothing sentiments. But let's face facts, folks. Getting Disneyland's cast members to put some faith in "Light Magic" wasn't really going to be enough to turn the "streetacular" into a success. To do that, the park's new show is going to have to win over DL's customers as well.

May 23rd finally arrives. The start of the Memorial Day weekend. Over 45,000 people cram into the park that night to try and catch the official premiere of "Light Magic." That same evening, many Southern California Disneyana fans sit at home and watch KPTV's "Light Magic at Disneyland : A Spectacular Journey" TV special. A two-hour long, behind-the-scenes look at Disneyland's latest street spectacle hosted by Alex Trebek.

After dusk, the official "Light Magic" opening ceremony finally gets underway. Disneyland Resort Paul Pressler takes to the stage. He's accompanied by Lindsay Ridgeway - an 11 year old actress from the ABC-TV sitcom "Boy Meets World" - as well as a choral group from the Orange County Boys and Girls Club. After the youngsters perform "Dream Our Dreams" ("Light Magic" 's theme song), Lindsay hands everyone at the podium a "little bit of pixie dust. " They then throw their "pixie dust" at a stand of flowers on the stage.

Suddenly, the bunch of flowers begins to glow and sparkle. A bright light then popped out the petals and begins zooming through in the air. It's Tinker Bell! (Or at least the pyro-on-guide-wire equivalent.)

Peter Pan's pal flitted all over Main Street U.S.A that night. Up toward the building tops. Down toward the Castle. Those that saw the Tinker Bell effect that night said it was truly "an astonishing sight."

Until - of course - the pyro got off its guide wire. Whereupon, Tinker Bell did a face plant. Straight down into the pavement.

Which - given all that had gone wrong on "Light Magic" up until this point - pretty much seemed to be par for the course, don't you think?

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