Disneyland in a New Light

Rick VanderKnyff is a Times staff writer

On a table in his Disneyland office, Michael Maines keeps a small, whimsical wooden model, a colorful cross between sailing ship and gypsy caravan.

No mere objet d'art, the carving is Maines' souvenir of the long, convoluted process that culminates this month in the debut of the park's latest "streetacular," Light Magic, a new nighttime hybrid of parade and stage show that has the unenviable task of replacing the widely beloved Main Street Electrical Parade.

The doughty old Electrical Parade, which debuted in 1972, went out last fall in a megawatt blaze of glory, as the daunting Disney publicity machine found it could promote the demise of an attraction just as well as it could hawk a new ride or parade--maybe better. The crowds who lined up for the Electrical Parade's long farewell were so overwhelming that the closing date was pushed back more than a month; crowds were so huge one day near the original end date that the park shut its doors early and stopped selling tickets, something that had happened only once before in park history.

All of which only put more pressure on Maines, director of creative development for Disneyland's entertainment division, who was tapped more than four years ago to come up with a successor to the Electrical Parade.

"I got tired of reading about it, frankly," Maines says with a chuckle about all the publicity that attended the end of that parade. Park-goers "may have some reservations about what we're going to replace the Electrical Parade with," he concedes. "The stakes are high."

Those high stakes are reflected in the history of the new project. Maines and his creative team spent the first 2 1/2 years on a concept dubbed Lightkeepers, but it was scrapped after new park President Paul Pressler came aboard in late 1994. A second concept, dubbed Lightkeepers 2, underwent a year of development before it too was abandoned. The wooden model in Maines' office is a relic of that project.

Finally, a year and a half ago, the team began creating the show that stuck, but even this version "has been tweaked a million times," Maines says. The final show integrates the use of fiber optics on an unprecedented scale, theatrical-style sound and lighting, animation, four 80-foot rolling stages and a huge cast (160 members total, 96 working on any given night).

There are new characters, pixies (related in some ambiguous fashion to Tinkerbell), who interact with "classic" Disney characters. And there are 2,500 miles of optical fiber with 250,000 points of light (take that, George Bush), creating an effect unlike any the park has produced before, Maines says.

Light Magic met the public last Tuesday with a paid private preview, with several unannounced "soft openings" and a press preview planned; the public opening is set for Friday. Disneyland's publicity team has long been hard at work in hopes of drawing all those who said goodbye to the old parade to say hello to the new kid on Main Street.

A week before the public preview, the wildly disparate elements of Light Magic were still coming together.

"Things are going great. It's very exciting," Maines says by phone several weeks after an initial face-to-face interview. "It's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle, and you just hope all the pieces come together."

"No, wait. Tickle Top! Tickle Top! You stay here."

It's probably a safe bet that the only place these exact words will ever be uttered is here in what might be called Disneyland's backstage, a complex of warehouses, repair shops and rehearsal spaces hidden behind the cut-out mountains that range over Toontown.

On this mid-April evening, the darkened hulls of the Electrical Parade floats rest, mostly bulb-less (the lights having been sold for charity at $10 a pop), outside the float warehouse. Inside, meanwhile, incipient pixies in workout clothes are learning their routines aboard one of the Light Magic stages. Some don their wings for a few minutes, but those come off when a CNN camera crew arrives. For now, it seems, the wings are still trade secrets.

Tickle Top is the name of one of the 16 main pixies. Others include Whipper Snap, Huckle Web, Snuggle Bud, Bumble Drop and Katy Did. Pixies are the stars of Light Magic, the characters who move the 14-minute production along from start to close, and rehearsals for the young adults who play them have been intense: intricate choreography combined with complex technical cues.

"We're probably breaking new ground in every discipline, from technology to dance," says John Addis, the show director. The full cast (some will play pixies, others classic Disney characters) have been rehearsing for about three weeks at this point; two weeks later came the switch to an all-night schedule, 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., to allow for rehearsals in the park after closing.

That's when, Addis says, "we become zombies."

In another warehouse nearby, costume leads Cary Khatab and Cory Roberts offer a brief rundown on the costume design and production for Light Magic, a process underway long before cast members were hired. The pixie shoes, for instance, took 2 1/2 months to develop. They had to be big and, well, pixie-like, while being supportive enough for dancing and durable enough for a summer-long parade season.

But it is the pixie costumes that provided the biggest challenge. Head designer Tina Haatainen had to come up with 17 different costumes (16 primary pixies, one reserve) that had to reflect wildly different character personalities.

What's more, each of the 17 costumes had to be produced in six different colors, making for 102 designs in all. Sixteen pixies are assigned to each float, and when Light Magic is performed on Main Street there will be four floats in a row (each with an identical show). The different-colored costumes were needed to maintain the characters' individuality if, say, one Snuggle Bud meets another in the street.

Designers had to be sure the elaborate costumes would allow for the sometimes gymnastic choreography in the show, and that required the services of (imagine this on your resume) a stunt pixie, someone who tried cartwheels and other tricky maneuvers while wearing each costume, plus wings.

Even the classic characters required some design work, because they are awakened during the course of the show and come out in their pajamas. What do Mickey and Minnie wear to bed? Disneyland guests will soon find out.

Then there are the "floats" themselves, in essence rolling stages that are so long that some must remain outside the warehouse, and so tall that Tinkerbell's house has to come down from the treetops to fit under the ceiling.

The chassis were built by one company, the scenic elements by another. On board each stage are five computers to generate the fiber-optic lighting effects; all these communicate with one main computer that coordinates the elaborate production.

"From a pure technical and theatrical standpoint, we're doing things that no one would have ever thought of," says Phil Lindsey, the technical director for Light Magic. "We're breaking all the rules this time."

While the pixies and other cast members rehearse nearby, Lindsey is supervising his own crew as they get the stages ready. Some are installing fibers in the stages' scenic armature--a slow, painstaking process. Others are testing the fiber-optic elements on another almost-finished stage.

The lights are static now, but even so it's a striking scene, with thousands of tiny pinpoints of color lighting a fairyland forest. When working fully, the fiber optics will allow breathtaking effects: swirls of changing color, an approximation of twinkling fairy dust, even the glittering trail left by Tinkerbell as she darts across the scene.

And it's not just the stages: Thousands of fiber-optic lights have been embedded in the buildings of Main Street for the show's finale there. Light Magic will be performed four times nightly through early fall, twice on the mall near Its a Small World and twice on Main Street. Unlike the Electrical Parade, Light Magic will be dark as it moves into position for the stationary show.

For Lindsey and his crew, intense design work began last August, with changes along the way to allow for the project's largely experimental nature.

One of the biggest changes came at the end of February, when it finally became obvious that mechanical controls for the fiber-optic effects would be insufficient, and a digital control system had to be designed from scratch. No one had ever used digital controls for fiber optics, Lindsey says.

"We came up with that one really fast," Lindsey says. "We all deserve a cookie for that one."

When the Electrical Parade neared its end last year and the crush of park-goers began, Disney representatives told the press they had no idea just how large the crowds would turn out to be. Mike Davis now says he was not surprised at all.

Davis, the park's vice president and executive producer of entertainment, remembers when the parade was taken down for repairs one summer in the early '80s and replaced temporarily.

"There was a tremendous surge of guest concern," Davis says. So the decision to replace the parade for good, when it came, was not taken lightly.

That decision was discussed as long ago as 1978, David recalls. But it was the success of the Fantasmic water and light show, added in 1992, that gave park officials the confidence to go forward. Increasingly, Disneyland entertainment is tied to movie releases, but Fantasmic showed that needn't be the case.

Fantasmic "kind of led us to believe the Electrical Parade could be replaced, and it was time for us to move forward before the audience asked us to," Davis says.

There were other aspects of the decision as well, including the parade's physical deterioration and its outdated technology. "It was falling apart," Maines says. "We wanted to move forward."

Disney parks in Florida and Tokyo replaced their own versions of the Electrical Parade, but what they came up with in each case was essentially an updated adaptation of the old parade. At Disneyland, the decision was made early to try something new.

"Updating and upgrading is always a nice thing to do, but we feel that obligation to invent and create new forms of entertainment," Davis says. The early consensus, Maines recalls: "Let's not replace a twinkle-light parade with another twinkle-light parade."

Lightkeepers, first on the drawing boards, was a grandiose project that invented an entire mythology of god-like creatures who created light. It was risky: no familiar Disney characters or music.

In the end, Maines says, the project "was magnificent in scale but seemed to lack some of the heart and storytelling that we wanted to connect with. There was too much dependence on technology."

Then came Lightkeepers 2, which brought down the scale of its predecessor and added a stronger story, this time involving characters called lumins, keepers of light, who arrived on a comet and, ahem, left on a comet. "Thank God we didn't go with that," Maines says.

Again, there were no familiar Disney characters, and again that probably contributed to the concept being largely scrapped.

Davis downplays the changes in direction over the course of the project's evolution, pointing out that there is little hardware to contend with, compared with a new ride attraction, and that leaves more creative flexibility. "At some point," he says, "we always come back and revisit our decisions [to make sure they are] anchored in what our audiences want and need to see."

In Light Magic, two overriding ideas carry over from its predecessors: the use of fiber optics and the idea that, rather than a parade, the project would be a stage show that moves into position, tells its story, and moves on again.

The lumins of Lightkeepers 2 became pixies. Dreams and dreaming became the theme. Many classic Disney characters were added. ("Audiences have a love for the Disney characters, and expect to see the Disney characters," Davis explains.) A brief animated segment, projected on a screen that rises from each stage, conjures memories of Disney animated classics from "Pinocchio" to "Lion King."

Musical touches, also, mix old and new, with snippets of familiar tunes mixed in with the Celtic-flavored Light Magic theme. Near the very end, even the old Electrical Parade theme--that insinuating, even insidious electronic ditty--makes its appearance for a few bars. "If you miss the Electrical Parade, you should feel better now," Maines quips.

In the end, Davis says, the intent is to provide an "intimate spectacular," one that he says uses cutting-edge technology in the service of a human story: "We're not just going to turn out all the lights and watch the lights go down the street. We're going to provide what we think is an unbelievable experience."

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