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Plugging Away : Disneyland Cashing In on Farewell to Electrical Parade

May 30, 1996|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Monday night at Disneyland in that lull between spring break and summer vacation.

Normally, guests would have the run of the place, but tonight they are packed elbow to eyeball to see the hot attraction.

Indiana Jones? Better get plugged in.

It's the farewell run of the Main Street Electrical Parade, the venerable light show that will flicker to a finale come Oct. 15. In a year when other parks have bet the farm on megabucks attractions to lure the summer crowds, Disneyland is packing 'em in to see its faithful workhorse plod its farewell trek down Main Street after 24 years. Among the enthusiastic viewers this night is Maria Rojas, who has come to watch the lights fantastic at the urging of her cousins in Santa Ana.

"They said it's the last year, so we had to come," said Rojas, an animated young woman dressed for the occasion in a Disneyland sweatshirt. "We didn't want to miss it."

It's a marketing coup worthy of P.T. Barnum that has industry watchers shaking their heads in admiration.

"It is brilliant," said pun-loving Karen Yoshikawa, a retail consultant and former executive with Knott's Berry Farm. "Disney has taken an old product and created a sense of urgency among the public to see it. . . . I'll probably go myself."

Oddly enough, Disneyland has never been very good at goodbyes. Through the years, the park has unceremoniously dumped shopworn rides such as the People Mover in favor of fresh attractions. The current parade will be replaced in 1997 with an all-new nighttime spectacular that promises to upstage the Blue Fairy and friends.

This time, however, park executives have pulled out all the stops to send the Electrical Parade out with a bang, not the customary whimper.

"So many people loved this parade that we wanted to give them one last chance to see it," Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato explained. Not to mention that Disneyland is angling for one last chance to cash in on it.

The company has launched a barrage of billboard, radio and print ads aimed straight at the heartstrings of aging Disneyphiles, urging them to catch the parade one last time before it "glows away." Disneyland is peddling parade-related merchandise inside the park and courting the media with newfangled musical press kits and blinking, battery-operated baseball caps to generate enthusiasm for an attraction unveiled when Richard Nixon still occupied the White House.

Industry watchers point out that theme parks must keep reinventing themselves to attract the crowds. Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure ride, for instance, opened in 1995, still has plenty of drawing power, but it faces stiff competition heading into the critical summer season.

Universal Studios Hollywood is unleashing its prehistoric blockbuster Jurassic Park, while Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia is taking the wraps off Superman the Escape, billed as the tallest, fastest, most technically advanced roller coaster on the planet.

"Parks have to create that excitement every year," said Steve Balgrosky, a Los Angeles-based theme park consultant. "Unfortunately, they don't have $50 million or $100 million to spend every year."

Which makes Disney's early success at plugging the Electrical Parade all the more impressive, Balgrosky says. For little more than the cost of a few lightbulbs and a savvy marketing campaign, Disneyland has manufactured the farewell phenomenon practically out of thin air.

Disney executives "have to be chuckling to themselves, considering what competitors like Universal are spending this year," he said.

Indeed, Disneyland executives are positively glowing about attendance figures at the park. Although Disney doesn't make its turnstile figures public, more than 14 million people are estimated to have visited the Anaheim park in 1995, which Disney acknowledges was a record year.

Brocato said 1996 attendance is on pace to shatter last year's mark, thanks to the general health of the economy, continued popularity of Indiana Jones and renewed interest in the Electrical Parade.

"It's helping the overall effort," Brocato said. "We have a lot of people returning to the park just to see the parade."

Industry analysts credit Disney's shrewd marketing for drawing the mobs back to Main Street for the grand finale, but they attribute the parade's longevity to quality, not hype. Introduced in 1972 with half a million lights packed onto a dozen floats, the Main Street Electrical Parade set the standard by which all nighttime parades have been measured, according to Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant in Cincinnati.

The parade has since grown to include more than 40 floats and has been viewed by an estimated 75 million people. It has become such an institution, in fact, that parts of it could be enshrined in another. Disney executives are negotiating with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to develop a Disney exhibit that could include one of the parade floats.

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