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 and 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 and 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 January 1996 meeting for Disneyland's Entertainment Office -- right after the plug had been pulled on "Lightkeepers 2," when the staff there was reportedly growing extremely concerned that they'd be able to come up with a suitable replacement for the "Main Street Electrical Parade" before the Summer of 1997 -- when someone supposedly brought up the infamous Tinker Bell flying figure story again.
Now you have to understand that -- as the MSEP replacement project had been working its pipeline over the past three years -- Disneyland Entertainment staff had been periodically meeting with the folks over at Disney Consumer Products. And the staff at Consumer Products had repeatedly been trying to impress upon DL Entertainment staffers that the follow-up to the "Main Street Electrical Parade" had to be "properly themed."
Translation: "We'd really like it if this MSEP replacement was able to move a ton of merchandise. So PLEASE put some recognizable Disney characters in this show. Otherwise, you're going to make it impossible for the Park to sell t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs, souvenir CDs, et al that are tied to this 'Electrical Parade' follow-up."
So -- after Disneyland President Paul Pressler rejected "Lightkeepers 2" because that version of the MSEP replacement didn't feature any recognizable Disney characters -- Mike Davis, then-Disneyland Vice President and executive producer of all entertainment began searching for a suitable Disney character to hang his new show on. So -- as someone in that conference room brought that miniature flying Tinker Bell -- Mike had an epiphany.
To hear Davis tell it: "Tinker Bell happened to be a character that did not necessarily have ... the highest profile at the Parks. This was a character that we (felt we) could develop a little bit more -- particularly with some story."
So Pressler wanted the MSEP replacement be built around recognizable Disney characters. As did the folks at Disney Consumer Products. And here was a character that Disneyland visitors had been dying to see more of for decades now. It was almost too easy. A "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the whole MSEP replacement debacle.
So Davis conferred with Michael Maines -- the then-Director of creative development for Disneyland's Entertainment division (and the producer of the MSEP replacement project) -- and told him about his Tinker Bell idea. Davis then countered by suggesting that he and Maines recycle the Lumins of "Lightkeepers 2" and turn them Tinker Bell's pals, the pixies.
It was at this moment that "Tinker Bell's Night Magic" was born.
And no, that's not a typo. This MSEP replacement show -- at least for the first few months of its existence -- really was called "Tinker Bell's Night Magic." Until someone in Disney Legal pointed out that Anheuser Busch already had a night-time show at its Sea World Adventure theme parks that was called "Night Magic." So -- to avoid confusing tourists in Southern California -- "Tinker Bell's Night Magic" became "Tinker Bell's Light Magic."
Mind you, resurrecting the Lumins wasn't the only concept that Disneyland's Entertainment Office would try and recycle in their attempt to come up with a replacement for the 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? Particularly when you only have 18 months to deliver a completed show.
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. Which you then blend together with the hope that you'll come up with something that's original yet familiar.
Soooo ... MSEP proved that people like parades at night that have lots of bright lights and 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 (guests getting the chance to get up close and personal with Tinker Bell) got folded into another good idea (a night-time parade that features colorful twinkling lights and 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 may have had 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 and ruin "Light Magic." But -- in their desperate attempt to come up with a workable replacement for Disneyland's much beloved "Main Street Electrical Parade" -- they accidentally "plussed" LM's slim 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 have been 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 this version of the MSEP replacement project. That thin wisp of an idea -- that Disneyland guests might enjoy having a close encounter with Tinker Bell -- 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."