On the strength of "Fantasmic!"'s overwhelming success, staffers at Disneyland's Entertainment office were finally given permission to do something that they'd wanted to do for years: develop a replacement for the Main Street Electrical Parade.
To hear Mike Davis, then-Disneyland Vice President and executive producer of all entertainment for the Park tell it: The way the public had so enthusiastically embraced "Fantasmic!" "... kind of lead us to believe that the Electrical Parade could be replaced. (More importantly, that) it was time for (Disneyland) to move forward before (our guests) asked us to."
Remember that old show business adage, folks: "Always leave them wanting more." Given that Disneyland's Entertainment staff honestly believed that the MSEP had over-stayed its welcome by at least a decade (Michael Maines -- then-Director of creative development for Disneyland's entertainment division -- insisted that the age and the physical deterioration of many of the floats made Disney's decision to unplug the Electrical Parade all the easier. "It was falling part," Maines said.), the time was right to go forward with a brand new night-time something-or-other.
But what sort of something-or-other should they do?
Tasked by Walt Disney Company management in mid-1992 to come up with a vital and viable replacement for the Electrical Parade (which would be ready to roll down Main Street U.S.A. by the Summer of 1997), Disneyland Entertainment staffers started by looking at what their counterparts at WDW and TDL had done to replace their own MSEPs. Unfortunately, Davis, Maines and Co. weren't exactly inspired when they saw what the folks in Florida and Japan had come up with.
To explain: The Disney theme parks in Florida and Tokyo HAD spent millions to create replacements for their own versions of the "Main Street Electrical Parade." But -- when you get right down to it -- what the Entertainment departments at WDW and TDL had actually done was create new parades that were essentially updated adaptations of the old MSEP.
Oh, sure. Walt Disney World's "SpectroMagic" parade (which debuted at the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1991) did make a brave break from its past by opting to use music that had been written in ¾ time for its new theme. This moving (moving as in "going forward," not as in "It moved me to tears") waltz was clearly a departure from Gershon Kingsley and Jean Jacques Perrey's "Baroque Hoedown" (that synthesizer piece that MSEP creator Robert Jani "borrowed" while he was creating the original parade). And -- to this day -- "SpectroMagic"'s music remains one of the more controversial aspects of this WDW parade.
But -- once you get past the music -- it's hard to ignore that WDW's "SpectroMagic" really doesn't stray all that far from the tried-and-true MSEP formulas. Sure, Disney World's Entertainment staff did make use of electro-luminescent panels (for those dragonfly wings) and fiber optics (for Practical Pig's paintbrush as well as King Triton's beard). But -- when you get right down to it -- the WDW parade team opted to stick with twinkle-lights as their primary lighting format for their parade.
Yes, it's still very impressive that all the floats in "SpectroMagic"'s finale sequence go from being outlined in white to suddenly being ablaze with color. But that effect is still achieved by using twinkle-lights, the very same lighting source that WDW's "Main Street Electrical Parade" used for nearly 15 years.
Disneyland's Entertainment was also discouraged when they learned what their colleagues at Tokyo Disneyland were planning on doing with their "Fantaillusion" project. Though TDL's proposed replacement for its "Main Street Electrical Parade" parade was still in its initial design phase back in late 1992 ("Fantaillusion" wouldn't actually open at Tokyo Disneyland 'til July of 1995), the Japanese had already decided to stick with twinkle-lights technology as the primary lighting source for their new night-time parade.
Yes, "Fantaillusion" would make clever use of black light. Particularly during the parade's "Good versus Evil" transformation sequences. But again, just like the folks down at WDW, TDL's Entertainment staff decided to play it safe by using twinkle-light technology to light up their MSEP replacements.
Given all the trouble that both Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland's Entertainment departments had had with coming up with a really innovative replacement for their "Main Street Electrical Parade," Davis, Maines and Co. actually wondered if they should bother to try. Wouldn't the smarter course just be to stick with the already established look, music and format of the MSEP ... but just update the parade's technology?
So -- for a few weeks -- this is just what Disneyland's Entertainment staffers did: Developed ideas for a new, improved version of the "Electrical Parade." Artists in this department attempted to update the look of such classic MSEP units as the Casey Jr. Train, Cinderella's Ball and Dumbo's Circus. (FYI: Some of the ideas that Disneyland Entertainment developed back in 1992 for this proposed revamp of the "Main Street Electrical Parade" eventually ended up being used in TDL's "Fantaillusion" replacement: "Main Street Electrical Parade: Dreamlights" parade, which opened at Tokyo Disneyland in June of 2001.)
Disneyland Entertainment staffers reportedly pitched the idea of a revamped MSEP to Disney CEO Michael Eisner sometime in the Fall of 1992. Where the proposal was allegedly met with a tepid response. Whether it was because Eisner really didn't like the idea or more because DL Entertainment's artists' hearts hadn't really been in the assignment ... Who can say?
Whatever the reason, Davis, Maines and Co. -- having explored all of the other opportunities -- decided that the time was now right to come up with a brand-new sort of night-time event for Disneyland. Something that was truly innovative. As Michael Maines once explained: "Updating and upgrading is always a nice thing to do, but we (at Disneyland Entertainment) feel (a real) obligation to invent and create new forms of entertainment." So the general consensus at DL Entertainment was "Let's not replace a twinkle-light parade with another twinkle-light parade."
So -- once the decision was made to try and do something new -- Disneyland Entertainment staffers jumped in with both feet. And the first thing they did was try and find out what other sorts of lighting technologies there were out there. To hear Davis tell it: "We brought in consultants from all over the country to work with our creative team. We talked about sculpting with light, liquid light, neon light, a variety of different lighting sources. And -- in the end -- it all came down to fiber optics. Fiber optics was a lighting source that we felt had not been used to its fullest theatrical potential. Which presented us with a wonderful opportunity to create a brand new type of Disney magical effect."
Of course, this being the Walt Disney Company, it wouldn't do to just create this modest little show that featured fiber optics. Disneyland Entertainment staffers envisioned creating the most ambitious fiber optic extravaganza that had ever been attempted. Something where the light traveling down each individual strand would be choreographed. Linked to music. Creating something that Disneyland visitors had never seen before.
Of course, this wasn't the only innovation that Davis and Maines wanted to fold into their MSEP replacement project. They also wanted to do something that had never been done before in a Disneyland night-time parade. Which was: have the parade suddenly come to a stop and have an expanded street show spring to life. Right in front of the guests eyes.
That sounds kind of odd, I know. But to hear Davis explain it: "We (wanted to try and do something that) had been very successful in our daytime configurations. Looking back at things like 'Main Street Hop,' our Main Street street show that was very successful; the 'Party Gras' parade from 1990 which stopped that was very successful; 'The Lion King Celebration,' probably the most successful day parade that we've done in our history which also had a stop for a production number, 'The Circle of Life.' So we felt that our guests had told us -- time and time again -- this format was a format that was acceptable ... though we had never tried it at night."
So once Disneyland Entertainment had these two key concepts in place (I.E. that their MSEP replacement parade would use fiber optics as its primary lighting source, and that -- rather than move in a non-stop linear fashion, as traditional parades do -- their new project would actually be a semi-sort-of stage show would move into position, tell its story, then move on), the creative team began casting about an original story to tell with their new show. But what sort of story should they tell?
Given that "Fantasmic!" had been virtually been built around Disney's entire catalog of characters, Davis and Maines decided that they wanted their new Disneyland parade-thingy to be as different as possible from their highly successful New Orleans Square waterfront extravaganza. Which meant no Mickey, no Donald, no Goofy. No Disney characters at all.
But how do you create a new show for Disneyland without making use of any of the corporation's characters? It's simple, really. You just bring in a whole new set of characters from outer space.
How many of you know anything about "Tomorrowland 2055"? That extravagant, elaborate, outrageous new Tomorrowland that the Imagineers hoped to have up and running by the mid-1990s? This all-new take on Tomorrowland was actually supposed to embrace the idea that Disneyland really was "The Happiest Place on Earth" ... which is why aliens would start coming to Anaheim to go on vacation.
According to the elaborate backstory that the Imagineers had cooked up for "Tomorrowland 2055": A Disneyland construction crew -- while using a backhoe to dig a trench to bury some new electrical cables in Tomorrowland -- would accidentally unearth this weird collection of other-worldly looking stones. Think Stonehenge by way of "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Anyway ... these stones -- as it would turn out -- were supposedly an extra-terrestrial beacon that has been buried for centuries. And -- now that they had finally unearthed and exposed to the sunlight -- these stones would automatically begin beaming a message out into deep space that Earth was finally an advanced enough civilization that it could begin accepting official visits from out-of-this-world tourists.
Which is why aliens would now supposedly begin flocking to Anaheim to meet and trade with the locals. Which is why that extra-terrestrial impresario, P.T. Quantum, supposedly flew his enormous flying circus-saucer (AKA the radically retooled "Carousel of Progress" theater-go-round building) and parked it right inside the Park, so that Disneyland guests could feast their eyes on "Plectu's Fantastic Intergalactic Revue." And -- right across the way -- the XS-Tech Corporation had set up shop. Here, Chairman Klench and his minions would give DL guests an exciting peek at teleportation technology with their "Alien Encounter" show.
It all sounds very impressive so far, doesn't it? Well, wait 'til you hear how Disneyland's Entertainment Office wanted to get in on the action. Build on and expand upon the "Tomorrowland 2055" storyline with their "Lightkeepers" show. Every night after dark, a in-park PA announcement would instruct Disneyland guests to turn their eyes to the skies. Supposedly, DL's radar station was tracking a strange new spaceship that was due to land at the Park shortly.
Then -- by making use of air launched fireworks as well as some clever sound effects -- Disneyland would recreate one of the more memorable moments from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." It would appear as if this massive UFO was touching down in that cast-members-only area behind Main Street U.S.A. and Tomorrowland.
After a few tense moments, the gates on Main Street U.S.A. would fly open and these tall, thin, beautiful alien beings (think super models from space) called the Lightkeepers would enter the Park. According to the mythology that Disneyland Entertainment had created for this MSEP replacement, the Lightkeepers were this entire race of god-like creatures that actually created light. They alleged came from this far-off mythical galaxy where light was the source of everything.
The costumes that Disneyland Entertainment dreamed up for this grandiose night-time pageant were said to be absolutely dazzling. Since the Lightkeepers were actually supposed to be made out of starlight, their costumes (which were to have been woven out of fiber optics) would have glowed from within.
These other-worldly creatures were supposed to make their stately way up Main Street U.S.A., around the Hub, past Sleeping Beauty Castle and then exit the Park through Small World Plaza. En route, the Lightkeepers would occasionally stop and interact with guests along the parade route. Contact with Disneyland visitors was supposed to make the alien's entire body change color and/or make their clothing pulse weirdly with light.
Eventually, the Lightkeepers were to exit backstage via that gate that's next to "It's a Small World." Then -- after another burst of air launched fireworks co-ordinated with some other-worldly sound effects -- Disneyland guests would be left with the impression that the Lightkeepers had reboarded their vessel and had headed back to deep space.
Sounds like a pretty far-out idea for a new Disneyland night-time parade, doesn't it? Well, Disneyland Entertainment staff spent 2½ years working on this show. Working up character designs for the Lightkeepers, commissioning sample costume pieces, working up elaborate storyboards that would give Disney Company executives some sense of what the full-blown final version of the show might look like.
And "Lightkeepers" really might have been built ... if it hadn't been for two things:
1) Following the disappointing opening of Euro Disneyland in April 1992, Michael Eisner lost his enthusiasm for big budget projects like "Tomorrowland 2055." Once Eisner asked the Imagineers to significantly downsize its plans for Disneyland's New Tomorrowland, the whole "Anaheim is the new alien vacation hot spot" idea went out the window. So -- since extra-terrestrials were no longer regularly dropping in on Disneyland -- the proposed storyline for the "Lightkeepers" show really didn't make much sense.
2) In late 1994, Paul Pressler was named as President of the Disneyland Resort. One of the reasons that Eisner assigned Pressler to this position in Anaheim is that he wanted someone to seriously start containing costs at that resort. This Paul did with a vengeance ... first by canceling construction of Westcot, then by pulling the plug on the "Lightkeepers" project.
Which was a real disappointment to most Disneyland Entertainment staffers. Though -- to hear Michael Maines tell the story -- canceling this version of the MSEP might have actually been a kindness. According to Michael, the "Lightkeepers" project "was magnificent in scale but seemed to lack some of the heart and storytelling that we wanted to connect with. (Plus) there was just too much dependence on technology."
According to Pressler's people, one of the main reasons that Paul pulled the plug on the "Lightkeepers" show was that he just didn't find the parade's central characters -- the tall, thin, ethereal-looking aliens -- all that appealing. Pressler wanted Disneyland's new night-time show to feature characters that guests would think were cute. Characters that would easily be translated into toys and plush, which would make it that much easier for Park employees to sell tie-in merchandise to Disneyland guests who were just standing there, watching the parade.
So -- with these new marching orders -- Disneyland's Entertainment staffers spent most of 1995 trying to cook up a new night-time show for the Anaheim theme park. This new version of the proposed MSEP replacement -- named "Lightkeepers 2" -- attempted to recycle many of the ideas and concepts that had been created for the original "Lightkeepers" pageant. Only this time around, the scale of the show was deliberately much smaller. The story much stronger.
Just as before, the show started off with a pyrotechnic effect. Only this time around, it wasn't a flying saucer that was coming down to earth. But -- rather -- a comet. And what was riding on this comet? The lumins, a race of roly-poly space travelers who are the galaxy's designated "keepers of the light." Riding on whimsical, other-worldly spacecrafts that -- I'm told -- looked like a cross between a sailing ship and a gypsy wagon, the lumins would sing and dance their way through Disneyland. Then -- once they reached the gate right next to "It's a Small World" -- the lumins would reportedly reboard their comet and (thanks to another burst of air launched fireworks and weird sound effects) appear to blast back into space.
Sounds kind of like a cute show, doesn't it? Well, that was a problem, actually. The lumins were just too cute, too sticky sweet. People who looked for too long at the "Lightkeeper 2" storyboards were said to be in danger of slipping in to a diabetic coma. "Thank God we didn't go (forward) with that," Maines laughed.
By the end of 1995, Pressler finally officially shut down development of "Lightkeepers 2." Among the reasons that Paul cited for canceling this version of the MSEP replacement was (surprise, surprise) cost as well as the fact there were no familiar Disney characters in the show.
"Our guests have a love of the Disney characters. When they come to Disneyland, they expect to see the Disney characters," is what Pressler reportedly told Maines and Davis as he sent Disneyland Entertainment's creative team back to the drawing board. Requesting that they come with yet another concept for the MSEP replacement show.
Now keep in mind that this is late 1995 / early 1996. In just a few weeks, Disneyland would officially reveal that the "Main Street Electrical Parade" would be "... glowing away forever" in a year long celebration ... and DL's Entertainment staff still had no idea what show would be replacing MSEP.
It's at desperate moments like these than men often turn to the heavens in their search for divine inspiration. So that's what Michael and Mike decided to do.
No, Maines and Davis weren't appealing to God. They were -- instead -- zeroing in on that little pixie who regularly flies over the Magic Kingdom. With the hope that Peter Pan's pal would help save the day.