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Disneyland in a New Light

When the Magic Kingdom's masterminds got the idea to replace the Electrical Parade, you can bet more than one lightbulb clicked on.

May 18, 1997|Rick VanderKnyff | 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."

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