Come for the princesses and stay for the ... interpretive dance? Disneyland’s new parade ups the art ante


The draw of a Disney parade in the modern era has long been the floats. That’s true again for Magic Happens, Disneyland’s first new daytime cavalcade in almost a decade. Marvel at the mini forest that conceals Anna and Elsa of “Frozen” fame, and stand transfixed at the curved LED screen that represents a wave towering over Moana.

Yes, the floats of Magic Happens provide the requisite eye candy needed for a theme park parade. There are details large — a blinking, bronzed sorcerer’s hat with a slight Steampunk bent — and small, such as little robotic owl, his name is Archimedes, perched near Arthur and Merlin on an installation celebrating the under-represented classic “The Sword in the Stone.”

But for those who take in Magic Happens, here’s a tip: Divert your eyes from the recognizable characters and brand icons. The stars of Magic Happens are the dancers, significantly elevated from their traditional role revving up the crowd with upbeat moves between set pieces. The 90-or-so performers are graced with heavily theatrical choreography, which at times borders on interpretive dance. In turn, Magic Happens possesses a keen awareness of dance as a language.

Dancers in front of a "Frozen 2" float bring a bit of ballet to Disneyland.
Dancers in front of a “Frozen 2” float bring a bit of ballet to Disneyland.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Think, for instance, of the dancers as extensions of the floats. Things start modestly, with those preceding a “Moana” float representing ocean waves with aqua-heavy outfits that are wrapped to represent circular motion. From a distance they look like spinning tops. The naturalistic and conceptual themes increase as the parade continues.

“Each of the elements, each of the dancers, are representing an idea,” said Magic Happens director Jordan Peterson. “The opening dancers in front of the ‘Coco’ unit are marigold petals that have actually fallen from the bridge as they’re gliding down and catching the air. OK, so how do we represent that through storytelling, through interpretation? So we created these beautiful skirts that flow really well in the wind and then they come off and they become their own elements of dance [as capes].”

For “Frozen 2,” Magic Happens nods to ballet, with exquisite outfits designed to imagine a snowy forest and its canopy. We hear strands of the film’s “Into the Unknown” intermixing with a new theme song from Todrick Hall, but Magic Happens doesn’t handle “Frozen 2” in the expected ways: a glowing elemental horse (the film’s Nokk creature) and hearty trees make the audience wait for glimpses of Anna and Elsa; dancers then capture the film’s exquisite environmental animation rather than mirroring the brash personality of Elsa or endless optimism of Anna.

“How do you create this tableau of this mysterious forest, and then bring it to life on the streets?” said Peterson. “It really starts with going back and doing your research into what story you want to tell. Just because it’s physical movement, and you’re not using your voice, doesn’t mean that you can’t take someone on a journey.”

"Coco" dancers represent flowers, sporting skirts that double as capes.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

While Magic Happens won’t be mistaken for a Beyoncé concert — there is still the need to balance advanced choreography with constant forward movement and visibly apparent crowd interactions — Disney collaborated with Tessandra Chavez of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame, and the result is a parade that enjoys plenty of pop fierceness. Even the parade’s closing duo of female dancers, who end the procession with a baton of flags affixed to their waists, put a saucy exclamation point on the end of the show with finger-wags, struts and exaggeratedly jutting hips.

For a parade down Main Street, USA, it’s borderline provocative. Yet Disney’s live entertainment team has shown over the past year or two a willingness to usher both the park’s day and nighttime offerings into the modern era. Evening show Mickey’s Mix Magic, for instance, pulled from EDM culture, bringing an ever-so-slight rave-like feel to the park.

Magic Happens explodes with loudly colorful looks. Men sport giant blue pompadours, and women don purple-wigs where it’s difficult to recognize where hair ends and tassels begin, which says nothing of the metallic jackets and saucer-like hats worn by the parade’s opening dancers. It’s contemporary camp, where objects aren’t worn so much as embodied. With help from makeup artist David Petruschin, best known as Raven from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” performers look forever in a state of transformation.


“We love the traditional part of Disney,” said Vin Reilly, a producer on the show. “But we always want to bring something new. We had the opportunity with Mix Magic and this parade to just kick it over a notch. It’s like sorbet. You want a different breath of fresh air.”

The dancers that launch Magic Happens do so as if they're pouncing on a fashion runway.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Magic Happens is essentially split in two, with the front half representing recent properties with multi-part floats and extensive dance, and the latter half intermixing older properties such as “Cinderella,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “Sleeping Beauty” in relatively quick succession. Designs still have modern flourishes — Taiana and Naveen stand amid rotating golden flowers and the turrets on the Sleeping Beauty float seem to grow before our eyes — but Magic Happens does present a clear distinction between Disney’s present and future and where it’s been.

Much of it is so vibrant that it could double as a night parade (another tip: catch the later of the parade’s two shows). Dante, the canine star of “Coco,” transforms from earthly pup to a kaleidoscope of Mexican folk art as it traverses the bridge at the center of the float. One of the brightest moments occurs after the “Coco” float passes, and the Disneyland streets are graced with dancers representing the film’s spirit guides, all donning animalistic masks and horns before giving way to the film’s big cat-like Pepita, a puppet that roars with every step and gives the show a brief nod to a Mexican alebrije parade.

A Polynesian influence, of course, permeates the “Moana” float, where dancers in full native Pacific Islander regalia may appear to some as a particularly bold choice. Yet the underlying tone feels celebratory, as the music adopts a traditional percussive feel as the rooster Heihei, here a remote controlled robot, tries not to get lost amid the commotion. Guests will no doubt have their eyes fixed to the assorted LED screens that appear on the “Moana” float, all of them matching the curvatures of the float.

And yet characters and technological advancements are expected at a Disney theme park. With Magic Happens, however, the biggest surprise may come right at the beginning, and it’s entirely human driven. The opening group of dancers step onto the street as if pounding a fashion runaway, doing so with a brashness that’s assertive, flirtatious and immediately attention grabbing.

“We wanted to make sure that the flow of the parade was unique enough to make you stop and realize something’s different,” said Peterson, “and we do it right out of the gate by going so bold with our opening dancers.”