From Celebrations Magazine: Lighting Up The Night

courtesy of Celebrations Magazine

The following is an article I wrote for Celebrations Magazine, which was the cover article in their September-October 2010 issue. Since it’s not otherwise available online, I thought I’d post it here.

Lighting Up The Night: Nighttime Parades In And Around The Magic Kingdom

Anyone who has visited the Magic Kingdom knows how it transforms after dark. Once the sun goes down and lights go up, the park becomes even more magical. From elegantly lit attractions and landmarks, to perfectly timed fireworks shows, to special holiday parties and experiences, the Magic Kingdom takes on a whole new life at night.

The nighttime parades are hallmarks of the after dark Magic Kingdom experience. Many park guests do not consider their night complete until they have seen a parade at night. Nighttime parades certainly didn’t originate with Disney; they’ve been around since the dawn of electric lighting. But Disney took the nostalgic idea of the light parade and “plussed” it to create uniquely rewarding experiences at the Magic Kingdom and in the water surrounding the Magic Kingdom that offer touches that are quintessentially Disney. 

The Electrical Water Pageant

The first nighttime parade to debut on Walt Disney World property was the Electrical Water Pageant, which still takes place nearly every night on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon and is the longest running parade of any kind on any Disney property. The Electrical Water Pageant debuted barely three weeks after Walt Disney World opened, and it still goes on display in front of the resorts surrounding the Magic Kingdom nightly, except during inclement weather.

courtesy of Ashley Aderhold

When Walt Disney World was in the final stages of construction in 1971, Disney executive Bob Jani was fascinated by the difference between the environs of the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California. The blackness of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake contrasted with the urban sprawl that lay just outside the gates of Disneyland. Jani saw what was practically a blank slate as an opportunity to create something truly unique.

Jani came up with a brilliant idea; he had engineers mock up an electrical whale using lights on a flat panel. When the whale was floated out onto the lake and lit up, Disney executives on a nearby boat were impressed, and they gave the green light to what would become the Electrical Water Pageant.

The Electrical Water Pageant made its debut on October 24, 1971. Fourteen 25-foot tall lighted floats, each with its own generator and 800-watt sound system, portray an array of aquatic life, including seahorses, whales, and turtles. In typical Disney fashion, the pageant concludes with a patriotic medley, in which the floats depict American flags, along with red, white, and blue stars. The pageant uses over 50,000 light bulbs.

Interestingly enough, the pageant has remained largely the same over the years. Initially, the pageant’s soundtrack was a pioneering piece of synthesizer music entitled “Baroque Hoedown,” which was composed by Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley in 1967, with the medley of patriotic songs at the end. In later years, musical elements from such Disney films as The Little Mermaid, Pete’s Dragon, and Peter Pan replaced “Baroque Hoedown.” The soundtrack is the only major change in the pageant’s history.

Today, the Electrical Water Pageant begins its journey at the Polynesian Resort around 9:00 (or a little later if the Magic Kingdom fireworks are scheduled at that time), then on to the Grand Floridian Resort, the Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness, and the Contemporary Resort. Guests at these resorts can gather on the beaches to view the splendor of the pageant; astute guests who time their monorail or boat rides right can even see the pageant in more than one location. The pageant often concludes in front of the Magic Kingdom when Extra Magic Hours are in effect there. During the day, the floats can be seen in storage from the monorail between the Grand Floridian and the Magic Kingdom.

The Electrical Water Pageant is a unique attraction and a whimsical link to the earliest days of Walt Disney World; it’s also a special treat for the guests of the resorts along the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. The pageant set the stage for even more nighttime magic at the Disney parks.

Main Street Electrical Parade

The Main Street Electrical Parade is a direct descendant of the Electrical Water Pageant. After seeing the popularity of the Electrical Water Pageant firsthand, Bob Jani and one of his associates, Ron Miziker, tried to figure out a way to replicate the Electrical Water Pageant at Disneyland, which was in need of some new nighttime attractions. Of course, since Disneyland doesn’t have a vast expanse of water like the Seven Seas Lagoon or Bay Lake, the parade was adapted for the Anaheim park’s Main Street, U.S.A.

The initial idea for the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland was shot down by Dick Nunis, executive vice president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World; however, Nunis was overridden by company president E. Cardon “Card” Walker after Miziker did some research and discovered that many small towns at the turn of the 20th century held parades with strings of lights after the advent of electric lighting.

An early challenge in the planning stages of the parade was how to power the floats. Since the generators for the Electrical Water Pageant were built into the floats, there were no such problems on Bay Lake, but the engineering department was unsure as to how to power the parade floats on Main Street, U.S.A. They considered electrifying the tracks in the street and looked at several different types of generators before settling on nickel-cadmium batteries similar to those used for lighting on film sets.

Much like the Electrical Water Pageant, most of the original Main Street Electrical Parade floats were flat, and they were initially rolled by hand. The lights were custom made by the Silvestri Lights Company of Chicago; Silvestri began construction on the floats, but Disney shipped the floats to California for their completion when Silvestri was taking too long to build them. Construction was completed mere days before the parade was to debut; in fact, early rehearsals were cancelled because the floats simply weren’t ready.

The dress rehearsal the day before the parade’s debut was a disaster. Some of the floats fell apart, while another crashed into a building on Main Street. Horses collapsed beneath the weight of the enormous lighted banners they were supposed to carry. The glitches were fixed just in time for the debut the night of June 17, 1972. Engineers were working down to the wire; some of them jumped off the floats they were repairing literally seconds before the floats went out onto Main Street.

Another similarity between the Main Street Electrical Parade and the Electrical Water Pageant was the music.

courtesy of Celebrations Magazine

Originally, Bob Jani wanted to use calliope music, but the legendary “voice of Disneyland and Walt Disney World,” Jack Wagner, suggested that the new parade use “Baroque Hoedown” just like the Electrical Water Pageant, and Disneyland Music Director Jim Christensen collaborated with Los Angeles jazz musician Paul Beaver to create a new arrangement of the piece, adding new layers of melody to the music just for the parade.

One major innovation brought about by the Main Street Electrical Parade was the advent of the first show-control program. Imagineers designed a system in which radio-activated “trigger zones” were placed all along the 2,000 foot parade route. Each “trigger zone” allowed the audience to hear float-specific music throughout the entire parade, meaning that every guest would experience the same show, no matter where they stood along the parade route. This show-control program was the forerunner to even more sophisticated technology at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in subsequent years.

The Main Street Electrical Parade stayed virtually the same through the summers of 1972-1974; after 1974, the parade took a break for the nighttime event America On Parade, which was developed to coincide with the nation’s bicentennial. In 1977, the Main Street Electrical Parade was redeveloped for its Walt Disney World debut.

For the 1977 incarnation of the Main Street Electrical Parade, which also returned to Disneyland that same year, the floats were redesigned to be completely three dimensional, and many of them are the same floats used today. The floats included the Blue Fairy, Alice in Wonderland, mushrooms, snails, fireflies, Cinderella’s Clock Tower and pumpkin coach, Captain Hook’s pirate ship, Elliott the dragon, and the rousing, patriotic “To Honor America” float. A Tinker Bell float was added at Disneyland in 2009.

The Walt Disney World debut of the Main Street Electrical Parade also called for a new arrangement of “Baroque Hoedown,” this one by arranger Don Dorsey. Dorsey also added an opening fanfare and sound effects and orchestrated the cues which dimmed all the lights on Main Street, U.S.A. to black in time for the start of the parade. Elements of classic Disney soundtracks were woven into the score, along with patriotic music for the “To Honor America” float. In 1979, Jack Wagner lent his voice, run through a vocoder to create what was at the time a unique effect, to the memorable opening announcement, which was written by Bob Jani himself. After Wagner’s death in 2005, Dorsey replaced Wagner’s voice with his own.

At Disneyland, the revamped Main Street Electrical Parade ran on Main Street, U.S.A. from 1977 to 1982, where it made way for the Flights Of Fantasy Parade, and again from 1985 to 1996. Disneyland had to extend the parade’s run for six weeks in 1996 due to the incredible number of guests who wanted to see the parade one last time. It returned to Disneyland in 2001, this time at Disney’s California Adventure Park under the name Disney’s Electrical Parade.

The parade ran at Tokyo Disneyland under the name Tokyo Disneyland’s Electrical Parade from 1985 to 1995 and at Disneyland Paris under the name La Parade Électrique de Main Street from 1992 to 2003.

At Walt Disney World, the parade opened June 11, 1977 and ran until 1991, when it was replaced by SpectroMagic. Those parade floats were then shipped to France for the opening day of Disneyland Paris. The Main Street Electrical Parade returned in May 1999 for a limited run until April 2001, when SpectroMagic returned. The parade made a much-publicized return in June 2010, complete with new lighting and audio technology. The summer 2010 return was initially intended to be a limited run, but in late July, Disney announced that the parade would remain at the Magic Kingdom indefinitely.

The Main Street Electrical Parade has had its share of unusual performances. In 1978, the parade was used as the halftime show for the Orange Bowl. In 1997, to coincide with the world premiere of Disney’s animated film Hercules, it played to an estimated three million viewers along Broadway; it also played on 6th Avenue in 1977 to mark the premiere of Pete’s Dragon. Most unusually, the parade appeared at midday at Disneyland Paris during the 1999 solar eclipse.

Disney estimates the number of light bulbs used in the Main Street Electrical Parade at half a million. Of course, the original Christmas tree-style lights have been replaced by LED lights in later years. The parade requires around 500 batteries and five miles of electrical cable. Cinderella’s Clock Tower is the tallest float at 18.5 feet, and the longest float is the “To Honor America” float, which is 118 feet long. The parade uses 80-100 onstage performers and nearly as many behind the scenes to keep the charming, nostalgic parade running.


The SpectroMagic parade replaced the Main Street Electrical Parade in 1991; its initial run lasted until 1999. After a limited return engagement of the Main Street Electrical Parade, SpectroMagic began a second run in 2001; this run lasted until summer 2010. SpectroMagic was developed and produced by Don Frantz and Ron Logan. The parade ran from Town Square in Main Street, U.S.A. to the hub in front of Cinderella Castle and through Frontierland. In 2004, Disney Magazine readers voted SpectroMagic the Favorite Walt Disney World Resort Parade.

courtesy of Celebrations Magazine

SpectroMagic has 36 floats, or units, as they’re officially known at Disney. The parade begins with a title unit, flanked by trumpeters and Spectro-Men on whirlyball pods. Initially the trumpeters and Spectro-Men wore glowing, faceless masks, but these masks were later replaced by LED masks with whimsical faces. Mickey Mouse leads the parade, wearing a purple and amber magician’s cape, while the Genie from Aladdin conducts a magical orchestra. Units devoted to Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Fantasia follow, and the parade closes with a beautiful carousel and a special appearance by Jiminy Cricket.

SpectroMagic differs from the Main Street Electrical Parade in that it is far more technically complex and cutting edge. Fiber optics, holographic technology, liquid-nitrogen smoke, and other lighting techniques developed by the military are among the many technological innovations found in SpectroMagic. One of the most fascinating effects is the “confetti of light” effect at the beginning and end of the parade. This effect employs xenon flashlights and mirror balls to produce a six million candlepower beam (by comparison, the strongest commercially available flashlights produce 125 candlepower). With this effect, guests can often see small beams of light piercing the air, much like rays of sunlight through a cloud.

Like its predecessors, SpectroMagic contains memorable music. The beautiful score, entitled “On This Magic Night,” was written by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated composer John Debney, whose father, Louis, was a long-time Disney producer. It is the only Disney parade music in 3/4 time. Debney and Steve Skorja arranged the piece, weaving elements of classic Disney music throughout. Skorja, Frantz, and Bruce Donnelly wrote lyrics for the parade.

The audio for SpectroMagic is controlled by DACS (Digital Automated Control System), the audio system used to control most of the attractions in the Magic Kingdom. Antennas atop Cinderella’s Castle emit DTMF tones, better known as “touch-tones,” through radio frequencies, which are received by each unit. Each unit has its own audio, while the main score plays on the speakers in each zone of the parade route. Lighting cues and effects are controlled by thirty mini-computers located inside the units.

It takes a tremendous amount of power to produce SpectroMagic. 948 deep-cycle batteries power the units; the combined weight of the batteries is 75 tons. Another 112 batteries power the speakers in the units. Over 100 miles of fiber optic strands and nearly 600,000 miniature lights help create the magical effects. The amount of power for SpectroMagic has been compared to the power of a fleet of 2,000 trucks or seven bolts of lightning.

SpectroMagic is a massive parade, with a length of 592 feet and a total weight of 117 tons. A crew of 118 cast members, which includes performers, unit drivers, and coordinators, is required to put on the parade. It has been a popular parade for nearly two decades, and many guests look forward to its return someday.

Disney’s nighttime parades and events at Walt Disney World have been wowing guests for 40 years. Imagineers have shown the astounding magic they can create using old-fashioned technology combined with Disney innovation and a little pixie dust. Nighttime parades have been popular at Disneyland in Anaheim, as well as at Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. The new World Of Color nighttime event, which debuted at Disneyland in summer 2010, is a sign of more incredible things to come at the Disney Parks. Who knows what we’ll see at Walt Disney World in the coming years?

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