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After a Miss, a Hit Parade?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Seeker, a retired New Zealander on tour, had hoped for a band in the Disneyland parade, maybe a jazzy taste of New Orleans.

But he didn’t complain when the menu turned out Chinese, a la Disney: a 150-foot dragon/Great Wall puppet, acrobats spinning plates on sticks and pots on their heads, a 30-foot inflated “villain” tied up like a Macy’s float in bondage, soldiers cross-dressed as “concubines.”

“Terrific. Unbelievable,” gulped Seeker, snapping photos as an 18-foot-tall emperor and full moon glided by on Main Street to close the spectacle. “The whole thing is fantastic.”

Along with mobs of tourists, summer at Disneyland means a parade based on Walt Disney Co.'s latest animated feature film.

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The night attraction that transfixed Seeker is based on “Mulan,” the Disney version of a venerable Chinese legend about a heroic girl. The movie, which opens today, is the Burbank company’s latest big bet on its trademark animation.

At venerable Disneyland, a side bet is down: that Mulan, the parade, can black out memories of Light Magic, a glitch-ridden fiber-optic “extravaganza” that burned up $20 million last summer while attracting extravagantly venomous criticism.

Debuting for annual pass holders who paid extra to see it, Light Magic drew boos. Disneyland returned the viewers’ money, but the debacle set the tone for the season as park attendance dropped from record levels the year before.

Disney said things looked worse than they really were--that attendance the previous year ballooned because die-hards flooded the park to see the last season of the Main Street Electrical Parade, which had run since 1972 and which Light Magic replaced. The fiber-optic contractor blamed Disney, contending in a lawsuit that the park’s 11th-hour changes so botched the Light Magic show that the lighting company’s reputation was damaged.

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Against that mottled backdrop, the Mulan parade officially opens tonight, with two nightly performances planned through the summer season. (A daytime parade based on Disney’s “Hercules” movie continues in its second season.)

The new parade emphasizes richly hued costumes, street choreography and story-telling floats instead of high-tech effects. Highlights include a giant carriage drawn by four huge Percheron horses, and a troupe of performers from Chinese circuses.

Its budget is a fifth of what the much-hyped Light Magic parade wound up costing, and its advertising budget is zero. Disneyland spokesman John McClintock said the theme park this year opted to devote most of its promotional budget to touting its updated Tomorrowland section.

Analysts say parades are important to Disneyland for several reasons. Besides promoting movies, they allow the park to offer a new experience at a fraction of the cost of a thrill ride, and serve as a safety valve, a diversion for visitors when lines get long.

Summer audiences have come to expect street extravaganzas to cap off a day at the park.

“It plays an absolutely crucial role,” said Steve Balgrosky, vice president of Economics Research Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm. “If you can keep people in the park into the evening hours, through the dinner time, you can increase per capita [spending] markedly.”

At public run-throughs this week, the Mulan parade drew some powerfully positive reactions--not only from casual viewers like Seeker but from the Disneyland fanatics who trashed Light Magic.

Al Lutz, overseer of a popular Disneyland Web site, described Mulan in breathless terms: “beautiful, incredibly detailed, clever, often dazzling, charming--basically every single quality that was so painfully missing from last summer’s mess. I can’t tell you what an utter joy it is to see something come down Main Street that doesn’t insult your intelligence, play down to you or bore you to tears,” Lutz wrote after the first public Mulan performance Monday.

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After the parade’s debut, grateful viewers surrounded its director, Jean-Luc Choplin, a former Paris Opera official now overseeing special Disney projects.

“I’m very pleased. After that very technological piece [Light Magic], I wanted just to go to the heart and touch people with lyrical images,” Choplin said.

“The Mulan parade rocked,” said Michelle Smith, one of the fans who swarmed Choplin. “It doesn’t take $20 million to make a good show. It takes someone who knows how to do it right.”

Main Street Electrical Parade die-hards--there were plenty, many wanting kids or grandkids to experience what they had--insisted Disney had it right before Light Magic or Mulan.

Tom Dyches of Denver, a frequent Disneyland visitor over the years on pleasure and business trips to California, stood surrounded by family on the Main Street curb and gently complained.

“This was good, very good. But that light show they had two years ago was the best Disney ever had,” Dyches said. “If I had my druthers, I’d go to the lights.”

Ann Bailey, “a total Disney aficionado” who has visited the park more than 20 times since the 1950s, stood nearby in a Disneyland sweatshirt, rocking a toddler back and forth in a stroller. She rated the Mulan parade “OK.”

“But I pray they bring back the Electrical Parade so my kids can see it,” she said.

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Her sister, Margaret Pinelli, also held out hope. “I was wondering whether it was like Coke and New Coke--that they’d bring it back because of the outcry,” she said.

Among others of the theme park faithful, though, the outcry was for more Mulan.

“If the powers that be at Disneyland were smart, they’d put all the Tomorrowland marketing hype on the back burner,” wrote Lutz, the online critic.

“Instead, they should put their resources into promoting the hell out of this parade once the movie opens.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Parading Down Main Street

Before the Main Street Electrical Parade, the only nighttime parades down Disneyland’s Main Street were Christmas extravaganzas. A history of Disneyland’s Main Street parades and street shows:

1972-1974: Main Street Electrical Parade

1975-1976: America on Parade (for U.S. bicentennial)

1977-1984: Main Street Electrical Parade

1984-1985: Flight of Fantasy (celebrating remodeled Fantasyland)

1985-1996: Main Street Electrical Parade

1997: Light Magic (May to September)

June 1998: Mulan

Mulan on Parade

Disneyland’s new Mulan parade celebrates the return of a heroic Chinese girl to her native village. Parade highlights:

Performers

* Acrobats

* Flower women and lantern women

* Tumblers

* Chinese double-sword performer

* Concubines

* Torchbearers

Features

* 150-foot dragon preceded by a torchbearer

* Giant horse-drawn carriage

* 18-foot matchmaker character

* Walk-around Chinese castle with a bridge and moon gate

* Two sculpted ancestor floats

* Inflatable 30-foot float

* 18-foot emperor character

Source: Walt Disney Co., Times reports; Researched by JANICE JONES DODDS / Los Angeles Times


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