Interview with Don Dorsey and a Complete History of the Main Street Electrical Parade In Honor of its 50th Anniversary
With today marking 50 years since the original debut of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland, we decided to celebrate in a number of ways. First up, here is an interview we conducted with legendary Disney nighttime spectacular producer Don Dorsey about his involvement in the creation of the parade’s iconic sounds and floats:
Second, if you’d like to take an in-depth tour of the history of this legendary parade, you can join us on YouTube tonight at 9PM ET for the complete, uncut history of the Main Street Electrical Parade:
Last, but not least, here is a somewhat briefer full history of the beloved classic if you prefer to read:
The Birth of the Main Street Electrical Parade
On October 24, 1971, the dedication of Disney’s Polynesian Resort saw the first public showing of the Electrical Water Pageant. At the time, it was 14 barges with simple lighting floating around the lagoon to a song from 1967 called “Baroque Hoedown.” Disneyland management in attendance at the festivities were looking for a new piece on nighttime entertainment for Disneyland, as the current offering of fireworks just wasn’t keeping people in the park into the late evening. Many people were generally leaving Disneyland around 6:00PM each evening.
Card Walker called Bob Jani and Ron Miziker and told them that they had to do something for Disneyland. They didn’t want the world to forget about Disneyland, with all this press for Disney World going on. Ron Miziker, who worked for an electrician Perth company ages ago, went down to the Anaheim public library and came across an interesting article about how, at the turn of the 20th century when electricity was a new thing, people in cities would string light-bulbs together and parade down the street with it.
They contracted a designer named Ken Dresser who was brought in to start laying out concepts and ideas. They made a presentation to Card Walker and other executives who immediately said “let’s do it.” The first question became “How are we going to power such a thing?” They couldn’t use generators legally, plus they were noisy and smelly, so it wasn’t ideal. Engineer Jerry Hefferly from the Disneyland maintenance department kept trying to do what he could with batteries, but it never seemed to work. They even talked about electrifying the trolley tracks on Main Street at one point.
Dick Nunis, Vice President of Disneyland felt the attraction was unnecessary as Disneyland was opening Country Bear Jamboree in 1972 anyway. A final ultimatum was given in January 1972 that they had two weeks to solve the issues or the project was cancelled. New batteries called nickel-cadmium batteries that were light-weight had just comes out and it looked like they would be the solution with just 3 days left to go. After some tests, it was decided this was the solution was strong enough to power the lights, sound system, and power units that would be used to drive the floats. They could make it through the park one way before having to be recharged for a second performance.
With that solved, it still wasn’t the end of the troubles. The decision to use the small Christmas-style lights was a problem as only one manufacturer made them and they were only white-color lights that required hand dipping the lights into a color medium. The company Sylvestri in Chicago was contracted to build the units for a large sum of money. When Ron Miziker took a trip to Chicago to check on the project 1.5 months prior to opening, not much of the float construction was done. Ron and Bob decided that everything that already existed would be shipped to California and would be finished there. A giant circus tent was erected backstage at Disneyland in preparation for the arrival of 14 moving vans full of the Main Street Electrical Parade. Electricians and carpenters were hired to work in shifts 24 hours a day to complete the parade in the remaining time.
With none of the floats completed, the first two scheduled parade rehearsals were cancelled and only one rehearsal was held. It was a disaster. Floats fell apart, cast members were being shocked, and floats were not finishing the route. This was two days before the parade was set to debut.
At the first official performance on June 17, 1972, Bob and Ron were standing behind the parade gate. As the floats were readying to move from backstage to Main Street, the lights on the units were lighted for the first time. Dozens of electricians were still working on the lights and were hopping off just before each unit went through the gates into public view. Ron said, “The sight of that happening was like people jumping ship just prior to it sinking.” The original floats that night included the Blue Fairy, Casey Junior Circus Train, Alice In Wonderland, Chinese Dragon, Dumbo’s Circus, Cinderella’s Ball, “it’s a small world”, and the American Finale. For the most part, the floats were two-dimensional, but some of them had three-dimensional elements or were completely 3-D.
The Main Street Electrical Parade was only meant to run for the summer of 1972. However, due to its popularity, the parade was extended through the busy summer and holiday months in 1974. In 1975, America on Parade, a giant tribute to the Bicentennial of the United States, premiered, featuring a record fifty floats and new characters with huge heads representing the American people. This parade ran both day and night through the end of 1976. When America on Parade debuted at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, it was decided that it would be directly followed by a far more advanced and permanent version of the Main Street Electrical Parade.
The Main Street Electrical Parade Comes to Florida
The Main Street Electrical Parade returned in 1977 with all the floats built in 3 dimensions and powered by battery motors, accompanied by a reworked score by Don Dorsey. One of the new floats at the time was Elliott, the dragon from the 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. This float was supposed to be in the parade for just one year to promote the movie. The float was remarkable for its size and the fact that Elliott would completely disappear on command. Though Pete’s Dragon flopped at the box office, the float was a hit and remains in the parade to this day.
This time, Disney built two versions of the parade at the same time- one for California and one for Florida. The new versions for California and Florida had one main difference, the Magic Kingdom floats were wider. The Main Street Electrical Parade performed for the first time in Florida on June 11, 1977. For 1977-78, the two versions of the parade had a neon-lit, revolving mirror finale float. The float had neon versions of Disney characters revolving on sticks, projected to all sides of the route thanks to the mirrors. This float was replaced in 1979 by the “To Honor America” floats we all know so well.
The Music of the Main Street Electrical Parade
Baroque Hoedown was discovered by Jack Wagner on the development team. Jack Wagner often selected area music for sections of the park. Wagner found a calliope machine that could be used to produce music. Electronic music was just coming about at the time, and a sample Jack had brought in was called Baroque Hoedown. They all thought electrical music for an electrical parade was a brilliant idea. To turn Disney songs into electric version, they found artist Paul Beaver. He was contracted to create all of those Disney songs in electronic form. They then contacted the owners of Baroque Hoedown and bought the rights to the song. Since then, Disney has bought the song and owns it outright. So while it wasn’t originally a Disney song, Baroque Hoedown became one.
Through discussions with Bob, it was decided to build the entire parade on top of Baroque Hoedown, a technique similar to “it’s a small world” where one melody is overlaid with multiple synchronized arrangements. In this plan, instead of moving the audience through the arrangements, the arrangements would move past the audience. Armed with sketches of the parade floats, Jim began the puzzle-like process of fitting Disney melodies into the harmonic structure and format of Baroque Hoedown.
A side note about Jack – in addition to him being responsible for finding the music he had another distinction. He was nicknamed “The Voice of Disneyland.” Jack’s voice was not only heard over Disneyland’s PA system for parades and special events, he also did a lot of voice work for the attractions themselves, including instructions, emergency precautions, and safety spiels. Jack also did some voice work for the Walt Disney World Resort and – what is probably his most famous and popular work to some Disney World fans – his voice can still be heard on the Walt Disney World Monorail System: “Please stand clear of the doors; por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas.”
Jack also had one more responsibility with the Main Street Electrical Parade – he provided the very famous announcement for both the original Disneyland Main Street Electrical Parade and Walt Disney World Main Street Electrical Parade. In a vocoded voice, you hear, “Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, Disneyland/Walt Disney World proudly presents our spectacular festival pageant of nighttime magic and imagination, in thousands of sparkling lights, and electro-synthe-magnetic musical sounds, The Main Street Electrical Parade!” After the parade concludes, you hear one final announcement before the closing electric fanfare; “Disneyland’s/Walt Disney World’s Main Street Electrical Parade!” Don Dorsey took over after Wagner passed away in 1995.
Following his work on America on Parade, Jack hired Don as his full-time audio production assistant. When MSEP returned to Disneyland in 1977, Don proposed to do something very different. The original parade began with a manually triggered tape of an oscillator sweep, followed by the fade in of the continuous parade music as the lights were turned off. Don wanted to create an exciting musical opening that would incorporate a fanfare that segued directly into the parade tempo. He also wanted to synchronize the light cue to the music for dramatic effect. Because the parade would need this sonic beginning as it arrived in each different area of the park, Don invented a way to perform automatic synchronized introductions “on demand.” This process, called the “opening window” has been used to start Disney parades ever since.
Don composed the “Electric Fanfare,” reworked the Underliner/Blue Fairy track with a perkier bass line and new melody enhancements, rearranged the Alice in Wonderland unit and added creature sounds, and arranged new tracks for Pete’s Dragon, Briny Deep/Underwater and Disney Neon Finale. Bob Jani called the new music “electro-synthe-magnetic” and wrote the announcement for the opening sequence.
After 14 years of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Walt Disney World, it was decided that something new should be done building off that success. The initial concept name was Electromagic. In 14 years, lighting and other show technology had come a long way, and Disney planned on utilizing it. Using over 600,000 lights and 948 batteries (112 of those were needed for the audio system alone), the new parade could do more than just light up. Liquid neon, UV, thermoplastics, gas plasma, liquid nitrogen, burst animation, and searchlights would all be used in this new parade. The parade would contain 100 miles of fiber optic cable in 37 separate floats and 61 costumes. Lighting was further enhanced by various types of prismatic lenses and reflection devices. Each float would also have several on-board computer systems to control lights, effects, and audio. The parade would also have a first, a cascading color changing finale across 7 floats and 30 costumes. With a new name, SpectroMagic debuted on October 1, 1991, the 20th anniversary of Walt Disney World.
We could spend an entire multi-thousand word article on SpectroMagic alone, and we probably will…
The Euro Disneyland/Disneyland Paris version of the Main Street Electrical Parade premiered with the park’s opening on April 12, 1992, and ran until March 23, 2003. This version was shipped from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom after it concluded in 1991, and like the Tokyo version, was nearly identical to the American versions while omitting the To Honor America float. Newly added to this parade, but soon after removed, was the “it’s a small world” finale float.
The final performances of the Main Street Electrical Parade were heavily advertised and drew such an overwhelming response that the last parade was moved back from October 15th to November 25th, 1996 in order to accommodate the enormous crowds that showed up to catch a last glimpse of the magical procession. Members of the original team were brought back to stand in a V.I.P. section and were emotionally touched by the hoards of guests, handmade sings, and the cheering of the crowd during the parade’s final performance.
Light bulbs certified as having been part of the show were sold to collectors, as well as dozens of other Farewell Season merchandise items. The replacement show, Light Magic, opened in 1997 and proved to be not as popular as SpectroMagic was in Florida. It only lasted one season and left Disneyland without a nighttime parade for nearly 18 years.
New York City
The first time that some of the MSEP floats were seen outside of a Disney Park was in 1977 at the New York City premiere of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Since the film was being premiered at Radio City Music Hall, Ron Miziker thought that it would be great if they could also promote the addition of a new MSEP float, Elliott, at the premiere. Ron arranged with the City of New York to not only bring the MSEP to New York City and parade it down 6th Avenue, but also got the City to somehow agree to turn off the street lights on 6th Avenue for the best show possible.
This was also done on June 14, 1997 for the opening of the New Amsterdam Theater and the film Hercules. With the addition of some Hercules-themed floats (for one night only, which seems like a huge waste), it was called “The Hercules Electrical Parade”. Again, Disney arranged for the lights to be all turned off on about 8-blocks of Broadway up to the theater. All the businesses complied with the exception of Warner Brothers, who had a Warner Bros. retail store at the crossroads of 42nd Street and Broadway. The lights eventually did go out on the Warner brothers Studio Store, when the chain went out of business shortly after that.
One other outside presentation of the Electrical Parade was presented during the halftime show of the 1978 Orange Bowl college football game.
Main Street Electrical Parade Florida Farewell, Volume 1
The Disneyland version of the parade was shipped to the Magic Kingdom where it debuted on May 28, 1999, minus the Pinocchio & Snow White floats that were sent to Paris in 1997. The long farewell run was marketed as part of the Millennium Celebration at Walt Disney World, and lasted almost 2 years to make sure everyone who wanted to say goodbye, could.
With much fanfare and huge crowds, the Main Street Electrical Parade glowed away forever on April 1, 2001. Very fitting that it was April Fool’s Day… but this joke would not be revealed for many years.
The Main Street Electrical Parade that originally ran at the Magic Kingdom was still in Paris at the time, but was marked for shipment to Hong Kong upon completion of the park. The parade never debuted in Hong Kong and was scrapped for some reason. Rumor has it that it was buried under the ocean floor just a short distance off of the island home of the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.
Meanwhile, the Disneyland version that had just performed at Walt Disney World was shipped over to Disney’s California Adventure to bolster the struggling park’s first Summer. It debuted there on July 3, 2001.
For the 2001 return of SpectroMagic, many changes were made and the parade was given several significant technical upgrades. In 2009, a series of new upgrades were started on the parade, however, these would be short lived.
Main Street Electrical Parade Florida Farewell, Volume 2
The Electrical Parade ran untouched at DCA until the Summer of 2009 and the Summer Nightastic promotion. The new version included a Tinker Bell opening float replacing the Blue Fairy and new versions of the original Snow White and Pinocchio units. All of the floats also upgraded to LED lighting and added a magical Pixie Dust “swoosh” to their sides. The most dramatic change was the music, now based on the Tokyo Dreamlights parade, without the actual vocal sections. Despite this rather large investment, the updated parade would only see one short 8-month run at the Disneyland Resort.
With construction on the $1.1 billion expansion of the park closing the parade route, the Electrical Parade was forced to end at DCA on April 18, 2010. The parade was then packed up and shipped via truck to Orlando. On June 5, 2010, the Main Street Electrical Parade began what was supposed to be a summer-only run at the Magic Kingdom.
Somehow, the Main Street Electrical Parade stayed at the Magic Kingdom for over 6 years in its final run. In this time, SpectroMagic was demolished as it was left outside for too long and destroyed by the exposure to the elements. Disney finally announced the end of the Electrical Parade for Walt Disney World, informing guests that the Main Street Electrical Parade would get at least one more fond farewell at Disneyland Park in 2017 for the 45th anniversary of the offering, despite the fact the Disneyland had a new nighttime parade that was particularly well received. Main Street Electrical Parade recently returned yet again for a special 50th anniversary run with a new finale float.
Glowing Away Forever?
No matter what you think of it after so many false finishes and how dated it might be, the Main Street Electrical Parade is one of the most beloved and historically significant offerings in the history of the Disney theme parks. Baroque Hoedown is one of the most recognizable songs on earth and the parade has likely been seen by more human beings than any entertainment offering with live actors on the planet. The parade’s impact will always be felt, as nighttime parades will likely always be a staple of the parks for as long as they exist. It will never “glow away” from the hearts and minds of those who cherish it, but perhaps it will never have an actual final performance.